In Thaïs, two worlds confront each other. At the place where the two worlds intersect is a place where symbolism stimulates a cathartic and redemptive experience for Thaïs. In my personal conception, Thaïs is an artist, devoted to the cult of Venus, to the cult of love, of lust. She is interested in pleasure and hedonism and is surrounded by a plethora of artists, actors, philosophers, dancers, and theater people. She has a tendency to excess, an exceptional non-conformity, and a libertinism that makes Athanaël both fascinated and fraught.
The sense of the theater permeates Thaïs’ life, and it fascinates me, as if, like a “scene in a scene,” or “metatheatre,” the whole life of the protagonist consistently engages in a representation, a disheartened and transgressive masquerade ball from which none of her court wants her to leave. She maintains a balance that is vital for those who live in her world, and Athanaël’s appearance causes its destruction. In the beginning, Athanaël sees Thaïs as though seeing her in a mirror—a mythical figure whose world he must oppose. In the end, however, he is captured by Thaïs’ charm and power.
To that end, the principal space is a room of mirrors that reflects all the personas and all the histories of the characters inside. The first mirrored space is characterized by the darkness of the monks’ meditation and a mirror dust that rises from the mirrors of the theater of Alexandria. This space creates the first scene of the work—simple, palpable, delimited by a neon light that encapsulates repeated actions and symbolic gestures of Athanaël’s companion. It then opens to Alexandria and the golden theatrical world of Thaïs along with the trappings of wealth that identify the world of the young actress.
The choice of costumes goes in this direction as well, differentiating two worlds: religion and theater. The former is characterized by a “repetition of the gesture,” of spiritual vision and rigor. The latter is characterized by eclecticism, freedom, and, most importantly, variety. Thaïs’ world consists of theater characters, dancers, and chorus members in masks, like in a Victorian theater where a “Middle-Oriental” performance takes place.
The lighting is designed for a drama. It comes from objects and has a direction. It imposes coldness in the scenes where the strict form of religion marks the time and warmth in the world of Thaïs. The lighting prison that we find at the beginning and at the end of the work symbolizes the impossibility of fleeing from the rules that religion imposes and, at the same time, freedom for Thaïs and Athanaël.
Throughout the opera, Thaïs’ way of being is almost more mental and personal and less spatial and tangible. Her redemption comes from inside, but is stimulated from outside—by visions, appearances, feelings, and attitudes. This sense of mystery characterizes the work through events, such as the levitation of her soul during the “Méditation.” Athanaël is overwhelmed, fascinated, and seduced by Thaïs’ world, though he tries to escape it without success. Both Athanaël and Thaïs remain victims of each other’s worlds until the darkness of the finale when their two worlds interchange. Thaïs joins the religious world she never contemplated and perhaps never even profoundly knew and Athanaël, having fallen in love, is thrust into a sentimental and fascinating world, but his love is thwarted by the death of the person who he chased in vain.