Jules Massenet and Thais, 1894

March 16, 1894 – Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs is first performed.

Based on the novel by Anatole France, it was first performed at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, starring the American soprano Sibyl Sanderson, for whom Massenet had written the title role.  The opera was later revised by the composer and was premiered at the same opera house of the original version on April 13, 1898.

The work was first performed in Italy at the Teatro Lirico Internazionale in Milan on October 17, 1903 with Lina Cavalieri in the title role and Francesca Maria Bonini as Athanaël. In 1907, the role served as Mary Garden’s American debut in New York in the U.S. premiere performance.

Thaïs takes place in Egypt during Byzantine rule, where a Cenobite monk, Athanaël, attempts to convert Thaïs, an Alexandrian courtesan and devotee of Venus, to Christianity, but discovers too late that his obsession with her is rooted in lust; while the courtesan’s true purity of heart is revealed, so is the religious man’s baser nature. The work is often described as bearing a sort of religious eroticism, and has had many controversial productions. Its famous Méditation, the entr’acte for violin and orchestra played between the scenes of Act II, is an oft-performed concert music piece; it has been arranged for many different instruments.

France, in the midst of World War II and German occupation in 1942, issued this 4-franc stamp honoring the 100th anniversary of Massenet’s birthdayï:

jules massenet - france

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