Benjamin Bernheim, Marina Rebeka, and Plácido Domingo in Thaïs.
Photo courtesy of Salzburg Festival / Marco Borrelli

On Tuesday night, the Salzburg Festival offered Thaïs in the Great Festival Hall. This is the opera from which we get the famous Méditation, for violin. (With a prominent harp accompaniment.) Did I say that the opera was by Massenet, the composer of Manon, etc.? It is.

What you need for Thaïs is, above all, a Thaïs. And Salzburg had a good one: Marina Rebeka, from Latvia. She was a substitute, too, filling in for Sonya Yoncheva, a Bulgarian, who was reported to have a health problem.

Rebeka showed a beautiful soprano voice. Free, spinning high notes (including D). (Including E flat!) And an understanding of the music and drama. She sharped a bit, as people from the “East” tend to do. But this was hardly an issue.

What acting she did was appropriate. Have I said that this was a concert performance, not a staged one? It was. Therefore, you will hear no complaints about the production (or praise, either).

Conducting the opera was a Massenet specialist. Yes, there is such a thing. Patrick Fournillier, a Frenchman, has devoted much of his life to Massenet, and Massenet is lucky. Fournillier led the opera with knowledge, musicality, and command. He exercised discipline within Romanticism. He would not allow the Méditation, for example, to be too slow or warped.

I might simply note, too, that he was batonless—like Masur, Karajan, and others before him.

The orchestra was the Munich Radio Orchestra, joined by a chorus from Vienna: the Philharmonia Chorus.

As for the cast, it was an international one—markedly so. They hailed from Bosnia, South Africa, and California, among other places. Outstanding was the tenor from France: Benjamin Bernheim. He owns one of the most beautiful voices before the public today. And he knows what to do with it, having a good head on his shoulders.

My sense is that Bernheim is not yet well-known in America. This can’t last long.

The leading male role in Thaïs is not the tenor’s (for once) but the baritone’s: Athanaël. Alexandrian tarts call him “young and handsome,” with “smoldering eyes.” Salzburg’s baritone was handsome. I’m not sure about the eyes. And he is—so the calendar tells us—seventy-five.

It was Plácido Domingo, the tireless former tenor. “I rest, I rust,” is his motto. He is not rusting. And he was impressive as Athanaël.

He clung to his score, in this concert performance. I think he read every note (and every word). He could not get free of the score. He scooped up to some notes, as he always has, and he slid around in other notes (again, as he always has). The vibrato was sometimes a bit wide.

But, you know, he is still Domingo. He knows how to breathe. He still has a beautiful—an exceptionally beautiful—voice, no matter what the calendar says. And he has presence.

He was plenty loud. Was he miked? Were the other singers? I think so. I suspect so. But I have suspected amplification before, and been wrong.

I believe that Domingo will work until he drops. Some men are like this. Bear Bryant said that, if he ever quit coaching football, he’d drop dead. He did. Bill Buckley worked up until the last trump. Scribble-scribble-scribble. Some people need it.

And if Domingo is still providing pleasure, still giving artistic value—is there anything wrong with it? No.

This has been a good month here in Salzburg for septuagenarian male singers. The new opera by Thomas Adès, The Exterminating Angel, had two “sirs” from England: Sir Thomas Allen, the baritone, and Sir John Tomlinson, the bass. One was born in ’44, the other in ’46. Domingo was born in ’41. Maybe he can help them along.

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