St. Thais lived in Egypt in the fifth century. Left an orphan after the death of her wealthy parents, she led a pious life, distributing her wealth to the poor and giving shelter to pilgrims on her estate. She decided that she would never marry, but would devote her life to serving Christ.
After spending all her inheritance, Thais was tempted to acquire more money by any means and began to lead a sinful life. The Elders of Sketis near Alexandria heard of her fall, and asked St. John the Dwarf to go to Thais and persuade her to repent. “She was kind to us,” they said, “now perhaps we can help her. You, Father, are wise. Go and try to save her soul, and we will pray that the Lord will help you.”
The Elder went to her home, but Thais’s servant refused to let him into the house. St. John said, “Tell your mistress that I have brought her something very precious.” Knowing that the monks sometimes found pearls at the seashore, Thais told her servant to admit the visitor. St. John sat down and looked her in the face, and then began to weep. Thais asked him why he was crying. “How can I not weep,” he asked, “when you have forsaken your Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are pleasing Satan by your deeds?”
The Elder’s words pierced the soul of Thais like a fiery arrow, and at once she realized how sinful her present life had become. In fear, she asked him if God would accept the repentance of a sinner like her. St. John replied that the Savior awaited her repentance, and that was why He came, to seek and to save the perishing. “He will welcome you with love,” he said, “and the angels will rejoice over you. As the Savior said Himself, one repentant sinner causes the powers of Heaven to rejoice.” (Luke 15:7).
A feeling of repentance enveloped her, and regarding the Elder’s words as a call from the Lord Himself to return to Him, Thais trembled and thought only of finding the path of salvation. She stood up and left her house without speaking to her servants, and without making any plans for the disposal of her property, so that even St. John was amazed.
Following St. John into the wilderness, she returned to God through penitence and prayer. Night fell, and the Elder prepared a place for Thais to lay down and sleep. He made a pillow for her from the sand, and he went off somewhat farther, going to sleep after his evening prayers.
In the middle of the night, he was awakened by a light coming down from the heavens to the place where Thais was sleeping. In the radiant light, he saw holy angels bearing her soul to Paradise. When he went over to Thais, he found her dead.
St. John prayed and asked God to reveal to him whether Thais had been saved. An angel of God appeared and told him, “Abba John, her one hour of repentance was equal to many years, because she repented with all her soul, and a compunctionate heart.”
After burying the body of the saint, St. John returned to Sketis and told the monks what had happened. All offered thanks to God for His mercy toward Thais who, like the wise thief, repented in a single moment.
Anatole France - Thais
Thaïs is a novel by French writer Anatole France, published in 1890. It is based on events in the life of Saint Thaïs of Egypt, a legendary convert to Christianity who is said to have lived in the 4th century. It was the inspiration for the opera of the same name by Jules Massenet.
Paphnuce, an ascetic hermit of the Egyptian desert, journeys to Alexandria to find Thais, the libertine beauty whom he knew as a youth. Masquerading as a dandy, he is able to speak with her about eternity; surprisingly he succeeds in converting her to Christianity. Yet on their return to the desert he becomes fascinated with her former life. She enters a convent to repent of her sins. He cannot forget the pull of her famous beauty, and becomes confused about the values of life. Later, as she is dying and can only see heaven opening before her, he comes to her side and tells her that her faith is an illusion, and that he loves her.
St. Thais of Egypt
Santa Taisia (Taide) Penitente.
Jules Massenet - Thaïs
Thais has always been what is called a vehicle opera; that is, it has been most successful when sung by a spectacular soprano in the leading role. Massenet composed it for the glamorous Sybil Sanderson, the American toast of Paris, while in the United States (and in France, too) the role was practically identified, for many years, with that glorious singing-actress, Mary Garden.
The story of the opera is based on the novel of the same name by Anatole France, the great French ironist. It should not be confused, by the way, with the story of that other Thais, the one for whom Alexander the Great burned Persepolis. Alexander’s Thais died as the Queen of Egypt; Anatole France's heroine had a very different fate.
The original tale was written by France two different times, both in prose; but when Louis Gallet came to build a libretto on it, he decided to experiment with something new, something he called podsie mdlique—a sort of rhythmical prose or
unmetered and unrhymed poetry which might fall gracefully into musical phrases. This sounds like a good idea, and it worked out well in this case; yet it inspired no imitations at the time, and it is only recently that librettists have been trying similar ideas once more.
Opera in three acts by Jules Massenet with libretto in French by Louis Gallet based on the novel of the same name by Anatole France
Thais, a courtesan
Athanael, a young cenobite monk
Nicias, a young Alexandrian
Palemon, an old cenobite
Sarvant of Niclas
Crobyle, a slave
Myrtale, another slave
Albine, an abbess
Time: fourth century a.d.
Place: Alexandria and surrounding desert country
First performance at Paris, March 16, 1894
Soprano. A 4th-cent. courtesan. Attempts to persuade her to give up her immoral life eventually succeed, but at the expense of her health. She dies, dreaming of divine forgiveness. Created ( 1894 ) by Sibyl Sanderson (the work being written for her, Massenet's favourite soprano at that time.
Massenet - Thais
Thaïs: Beverly Sills
Athanaël: Sherrill Milnes
Nicias: Nicolai Gedda
Palémon: Richard van Allan
Crobyle: Ann-Marie Connors
Myrtale: Ann Murray
La Charmeuse: Norma Burrowes
Albine: Patricia Kern
Un serviteur: Brian Ethridge
John Alldis Choir
New Philharmonia Orchertra
Scene 1 takes place in the desert near Thebes, on the banks of the Nile, some time in the fourth century. A group of monks—“cenobites,” they were called—is having an evening meal of bread, salt, hyssop leaves, and honey, and their leader, Palemon, is praying. Athanael, one of their members, comes back, dusty and exhausted, from a trip to Alexandria, his birthplace. There he has seen the corruption amid which he himself was raised. But it is worse now, he reports. The courtesan and actress, Thais, has inspired even greater vice, and Athanael wishes to return and try to save her. Palemon gently tries to tell him he would be doing better to mind his own business; but when everyone leaves the young monk, he sees Thais once more in a vision, acting, half naked, before a crowd, as he had seen her in Alexandria.
Terribly excited, he calls back his fellow monks. He tells them he must go at once; and though Palemon repeats his gentle warning, Athanael sets out on his trip. As the scene closes, he is on his way, and one hears the monks praying for him from ever and ever greater distances.
Scene 2 finds Athanael once more in Alexandria, and the graceful music of the prelude suggests how much pleasanter this place is than the desert. He stands before the splendid home of his old friend Nicias, but he finds nothing pleasant in the sight of all this cursed wealth. Nicias greets him with complete cordiality, and when Athanael tells him the reason for his visit, Nicias says: Fine! It happens that Thais is his own mistress for the time being, and, in fact, he is giving her a big farewell party that night. Athanael must come-only he must be dressed properly for the festivities, not like a dirty old monk. And so he summons two pretty slave girls, Crobyle and Myrtale, to bathe and dress him in the highest Alexandrian fashion.
The girls are delighted, for they find this monk a most handsome and attractive fellow. In a charming duet, full of laughter, they effect a startling change, finishing just before the guests, in very high spirits, come rushing in. Among them is Thais, beloved of all of them as the most glamorous and beautiful girl in town. She is left for a short while alone with Nicias, and in a good-natured but slightly sentimental fashion she tells him it is his last time with her, for he has no more money. Not a cynical note creeps into the expression of this basically cynical attitude, for these are the rules of the game, and Nicias does not question them.
Thais is struck, however, by the appearance of Athanael. Nicias tells her that his friend has come to convert her to Christianity. Thais, attracted in spite of herself, tells Athanael she believes only in the power of love—her kind of love; but Athanael, almost literally, threatens her with salvation. This angers the actress, and before Athanael’s eyes she begins to disrobe to portray the love of Aphrodite. Deeply shocked, he rushes from the scene as Thais, ending on a high D-flat, cries: “Only dare to come near—you who defy Venusl”
Scene 1 finds Thais in her own luxurious home. She is beautiful, but she is tired—tired of her life as actress and as courtesan. Her fear, she tells us in a long scene alone, is that she will grow old, she will lose her loveliness; and she prays for eternal beauty to the one deity she acknowledges—the goddess of love, Venus.
The rest of the scene is a duet between her and Athanael, as he tries to persuade her to give up her evil life for a holy one. In vain, at first, he tells her of the difference between her love and his—between profane and holy love. To this she replies that she knows only one language of love—kisses. Athanael, however, persists, and at one point in the duet they pray simultaneously—he to the Christian god, she to Venus.
Suddenly he pulls off the fine robes his rich friend Nicias has given him and stands before her as a monk in a hair-shirt. Now she is afraid, for she feels that eternal life can come only through Athanael's religion; and when she hears Nicias singing ardently outside her room, she sends him off. Athanael, too, is ordered to go, for she must be alone to ponder and to learn. She is still confused; she cannot think; and the scene closes as she is driven to hysterical laughter.
Her thoughts, as she is alone, are suggested in music—the music of the familiar and beautiful Meditation, which is played while the scenery is changed.
Scene 2 Athanael has lain quietly at the doorstep of Thals’s house all night long. Soft sounds of the gay music of Alexandrian festivities are heard at the beginning of the scene. But the conversion of Thais has been complete. She comes from her home prepared to go with Athanael, to lead a holy life. He promises to take her to a convent, but first, he says, she must destroy all her evil wealth. One thing alone she would preserve—a little statue of Eros, Love, and she sings a touching aria about it ( L’amour une vertu “Love is a precious virtue”). But Athanael hurls the little pagan statue to the ground, and, obediently, Thais prepares to follow him.
Suddenly Nicias and his whole crowd of revelers bursts in. As Thais and Athanael re-enter the house, this crowd sings and dances, and the orchestra plays the ballet music from Thais. Just at its close Athanael comes back and is laughingly greeted by his friends. But when Thais follows, now dressed in only a woolen tunic, they grow angry. Athanael take away their great Queen of Beauty into the desert? Never, never— and they drunkenly attack the monk. Nicias, however, rises to the occasion. He distracts the crowd by tossing gold among them; and as Thais steals away with her holy mentor, he cries after her: “Adieu! Your memory will ever be perfume to my soul.” He is really a nice, sentimental fellow, this Nicias; and it is only then that he discovers that Thais and Athanael have put a torch to the house, which starts burning wildly about him.
Scene 1 begins at the end of the dusty trip through the desert. As Athanael and Thais reach an oasis, she wishes to rest, for her frail body can take no more punishment. At first Athanael is harsh with her: a holy life, in his philosophy, demands punishment of the flesh. But soon he relents, and leaves her to find some refreshment. As the orchestra plays some of the music from the Meditation, she prays to God, acknowledging the sweetness of His spirit.
When Athanael returns with fruit and water, they sing a gentle duet as they bathe their hands and lips. Refreshed, they are about to go on, when the nuns come up to meet them. They are headed by the Abbess Albine, and they chant the Lord's Prayer in Latin as they come. Tenderly Athanael turns his charge over to the Abbess; tenderly Thais bids farewell to the man who has saved her soul. “Adieu, man p&re,” she says—for never once in the opera does she utter Athanael’s own name. And suddenly—for the first time—Athanael realizes that he loves Thais, and that he may never see her again. He utters a cry of anguish—as the nuns depart, taking Thais with them.
Jules Massenet : Méditation de Thaïs Joshua Bell
Scene 2 Anatole France was a great satirist, a great ironist. The neat point of his story is that the great exponent of profane love—Thais—becomes a saint, while the great exponent of self-denying holy love—Athanael—renounces it for a sinner. In a scene that is almost always omitted as not really necessary, Athanael struggles with his temptation in his solitary hut; but a vision of Thais, dying, makes him rush off to see her one last time.
Scene 3 Athanael arrives at the convent, barely in time. For three months Thais has mortified her flesh, and now she lies dying. Albine and the other nuns mourn her as the most saintly of them all. Athanael, in anguish, rushes in. The dying Thais recognizes him, but it is now in vain that he tries to tell her that the only true love is love between earthly beings. As the strains of the Meditation are heard once more, Thais believes she sees two angels and God Himsdf preparing to take her to heaven. The recusant monk, utterly frustrated, sees his convert die a holy death.