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Long favoured by tea-room trios and sweet-toothed fiddle virtuosos, Jules Massenet's Thaïs "Méditation" signals, in its original operatic context, the religious awakening of a complex heroine. Thaïs is an Egyptian courtesan who Massenet couches in the subtlest musical terms and who Renée Fleming - on her newly released Decca recording of the complete score - invests with a wealth of sensual characterisation.

Long favoured by tea-room trios and sweet-toothed fiddle virtuosos, Jules Massenet's Thaïs "Méditation" signals, in its original operatic context, the religious awakening of a complex heroine. Thaïs is an Egyptian courtesan who Massenet couches in the subtlest musical terms and who Renée Fleming - on her newly released Decca recording of the complete score - invests with a wealth of sensual characterisation.

Eavesdropping on Thaïs's heart-rending death scene, sung with the conciliatory "Méditation" in attendance, one questions whether her raging hormones really were dying with her. Thomas Hampson sits by as the tortured monk who brought her to God at the cost of his own heart. True to form, he acts the part wonderfully well.

Massenet's score harbours many beautiful moments. One occurs near the opening of the Second Act (disc 1, track 19) as Thaïs, sitting alone and disillusioned, confesses her fear of growing old. Another closes the same act's delightful "Divertissement" (disc 2, track 10) where slave girls sing that "she who comes is fairer than the Queen of Sheba" and the dancing Enchantress (soprano Elisabeth Vidal) responds with seductive Eastern allure.

The use of harp, woodwinds, lower-string pizzicatos and timpani provides just one instance among many of Massenet's piquant instrumental tone painting.

Conductor Yves Abel cues a nicely played and thoughtfully phrased performance, but turn to Sir Thomas Beecham's fully fired-up 1943 Met relay of Charpentier's Louise and you soon realise the difference between competence and genius. The story concerns a strong-headed girl who defies parental misgivings for the sake of love and freedom. Again, the opera is best-known for a single number, in this case the aria "Depuis le jour" that Louise sings near the beginning of the third act.

Beecham's Louise is Tennessee-born Grace Moore, a much-loved diva who wowed thousands with her beauty and died in an air crash in her forties. Her virile on-stage lover is the Canadian Raoul Jobin, and her fictional father, the magnificent bass Ezio Pinza.

Charpentier's score is vivacious and emotive, less elegant perhaps than Thaïs, but rather more dramatically engaging. Beecham conducts with the utmost sensitivity, especially in the first and third acts, where the Met strings play with heart-stopping expressivity. Sound-wise, things go rather better than expected - some Met broadcasts of the period are extremely ropy - and the third CD also includes a generous sampling of Moore's commercial recordings.

Which leaves scant room for a rare vintage Carmen, older and rougher than Beecham's Louise but with bags of energy and charm. When the recording was made back in 1927, conductor Piero Coppola was head of French HMV (how's that for hands-on involvement). Coppola's feisty Carmen is Lucy Perelli and his pretty-voiced Micaëla, Yvonne Brothier. José de Trevi acts a vigorous Don José and Louis Musy an arrogant-sounding Escamillo. All muck in for a reading that, even after all these years ( Carmen in 1927 was actually more "recent" than Peter Grimes is in 2000), still rates among the earthiest and most believable in the catalogue. If you can tolerate the surface noise, the hasty side-joins and the cramped-sounding orchestra, you're in for a treat.

Massenet 'Thaïs': Fleming, Hampson, Abel. Decca 466 766-2 (2 discs)

Charpentier 'Louise': Moore, Jobin, Pinza. Naxos 8.110102-04 (3 discs)

Bizet 'Carmen': Perelli, de Trevi, Coppola. Malibran Music/One for You CDRG 114 (2 discs)

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