Premiered: March 16, 1894 - Opéra Garnier, Paris
Setting of Thais:
Jules Massenet's Thais takes place 4th century Egypt.
The Story of Thais
Thais, ACT 1
Cenobite monks are working and carrying on with their daily tasks as usual. Of them, Palemon awaits for Athanael, the most abstinent of all the monks, to return from his travels. When Athanael arrives, he brings news of Alexandria, his birth place many years ago. Ever since leaving the city to pursue his monastic life, Athanael cannot stop thinking about the multitude of sins the secular city has committed and continues to commit. Athanael believes Alexandria to be under the influence of Thais, a Venusian priestess whom he recalls from his childhood. Despite Palemon's warnings not to interfere, Athanael is determined to convert Thais to Christianity. When the sun sets, the monks go to their bedrooms, and Athanael dreams of Thais. After praying for strength, Athanael decides to leave for Alexandria at dawn. Palemon tries to persuade Athanael to stay, but his attempt is, yet again, unsuccessful, and Athanael departs.
When Athanael steps foot in the city, he is overwhelmed by the sight. Luxuries, indulgence, and free thinking abound. Remembering his childhood friend, Athanael ventures to his home. Nicias, now very wealthy, is happy to see Athanael and is quick to invite him inside. Nicias and Athanael catch up, and Nicias reveals that he is Thais' current lover. However, after a weeks time, he has run out of money to pay her and she preparing her things to leave. Athanael tells Nicias his plans to convert her, and Nicias laughs. After warning that Venus will get her revenge should he be successful, Nicias agrees to introduce Athanael to Thais. After Nicias arranges for his servants to redress Athanael for the evening's dinner, he takes him to the dining room. Nicias and Thais sing a duet and Thais begins saying her goodbyes. After the song, dinner is served. When questioned about this new dinner guest, Nicias tells Thais that it is his childhood friend. Athanael divulges his intentions for her. She dismisses him and questions him with a seductive song, asking him how he is able to not give in to love's desire. Immediately, Athanael's face turns a bright shade of red and he rushes out of the house, shouting that he will convert her still.
Thais, ACT 2
Alone, Thais paces in her bedroom ruminating on her life and what will happen to her once her beauty fades. Athanael, having prayed again for strength to resist her charms, enters into her room. Surprised by his appearance, she warns him not to love her. He proceeds to tell her that the love he has to give her will lead to eternal life and everlasting salvation. A love that springs pure from his spirit rather than his flesh, and it will last forever instead of a single night. Outside, Nicias shouts the sordid details of Thais' life, and Thais becomes even more anguished. Turning down both Athanael's god and her current way of life, Thais nearly faints. She sends Athanael away, but he promises to wait outside of her door until morning.
Throughout the night, Thais meditates. Fianlly, as the sun begins to rise, she exits her bedroom and greets Athanael. She tells him she has decided to convert to Christianity and follow him to the convent. Athanael couldn't be happier. However, before she can leave, Athanael instructs her to burn down her palace and all of her belongings, signaling her commitment to her new life. Thais obeys his instructions, but sets aside a small statue of Eros, the god of love. She wants to keep it as a reminder of her sins against love. When Athanael learns that it was a gift from Nicias, he quickly smashes it to pieces. He and Thais go back inside the palace and continue to destroy her possessions. Nicias arrives with a large group of followers after having won a large sum of money from gambling, wanting to purchase Thais' services for a while longer. When Athanael and Thais exit the palace, Athanael tells Nicias that Thais has given up her former life and they are leaving for the convent. Nicias, impressed with Athanael and respectful of Thais' decision, helps aid in their escape. Nicias' followers start to riot and demand Thais to stay. Nicias throws money up into the air to distract the angry crowd, and the palace bursts into flames.
Thais, ACT 3
After a long day's journey through the desert, Thais and Athanael stop at an oasis not far from Mother Albine's convent. Thais, weak and in pain, asks if they can rest longer. Athanael ignores her request, telling her that she must carry on to make up for her sins. However, when he sees that her feet are swollen and bloody, he has compassion for her and fetches her some water. Feeling pity rather than detestation, Athanael becomes more friendly towards her and they have a delightful conversation. Thais thanks him deeply for showing her kindness and bringing her to salvation. Once rested, they make the final leg of their journey to the convent. Sister Albine and the other nuns are quick to welcome her inside. When Athanael says his goodbyes, he suddenly realizes he will never see her again.
Athanael returns to join his fellow brothers within the walls of the monastery. Palemon has been observing him, and notices a change. Athanael seems to be lifeless - he hardly interacts with his fellow monks. When questioned, Athanael tells Palemon that he cannot rid himself of visions of Thais. No matter how hard he tries, or how many times he prays, her beauty remains steadfastly in his mind. Palemon reminds Athanael that he warned him to stay away from her. Left alone to sleep, Athanael dreams of Thais. Wanting to be intimate with her, she evades him. After briefly waking up, he drifts into sleep once more to dream of her. This second dream is frightful - Thais is gravely ill and is about to die. Athanael violently awakes from a deep sleep and rushes out into a fast approaching sand storm, traveling as quickly as possible to the convent.
Athanael finally arrives at the convent. Albine greets him and hurriedly brings him to Thais' side. She has been sick, and after three months of penance, she is about to die. Athanael abandons his monastic life and tells her he was wrong. Her original view of love was right all along and he has accepted it into his heart. He opens up his heart to her and tells her he is in love with her. Thais, oblivious to his confession, has visions of angels and describes a heavenly light opening above her. Thais lets out her final breath and ascends into heaven. Athanael collapses and begs God for forgiveness.