Leonard Rosmarin

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THAIS, OR THE SUBLIMATION OF EROS

Posted by leonardrosmarin on June 27, 2018 at 9:35 AM



During the previous century, and especially during the 1970s, it took considerable courage to confess that one admired Jules Massenet's music. His many detractors dismissed it as overly saccharine. His most ferocious critics referred to him derisively as "Mlle Wagner," accusing him of striving for grandiose effects and failing to deliver. I have always luxuriated in his sheer melodiousness and in the mauve-lit iridescence of his music. I have always admired the way his vocal line, and its orchestral undergirding are so attentive to the modifications in a character's personality. I have chosen to speak on Thaïs because it reveals his multi-facetted talent. This courtesan is infinitely more than a tart with a heart, as I hope to demonstrate to you.


Thaïs is not frequently performed because the title role demands attributes which few singing actresses possess. She must have a diaphanous voice, yet powerful enough to surf on the orchestra's tidal waves, and she must have the body of a strip tease queen. Beverly Sills was splendid in the role in the 1970s; Renée Fleming, as you will see, truly embodied the part in 2008. The monk Athanaël also demands a singing actor of exceptional talent. Sherrill Milnes was outstanding in the 1970s, suggesting a man tortured by sexual lust while deluding himself into believing that he was a man of God. Thomas Hampson, whom you will hear and see soon, excels in portraying messed-up characters. In fact, as he says himself, this is one of his specialties.


Massenet's opera Thaïs was inspired by a novel bearing the same title, and written by the French author, Anatole France, who would receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1921. With its singular mixture of sensuality and austerity, religion and paganism, eroticism and chastity, France's novel reflects the "fin-de-siècle" ambiance in which he wrote it (1890). Based on a drama by the tenth-century German nun Hrostwitha, his text describes how the cenobite monk, Paphnuce succeeds in converting Thaïs, a courtesan living in Alexandria in the fourth century A.D., celebrated as much for the qualities of her mind as for her dazzling beauty. The French novelist follows the storyline of his pious source up to the courtesan's conversion, but what happens afterwards is far from edifying. Anatole France is reported to have remarked: "I have only two enemies: Christ and chastity." He makes this attitude unmistakably clear as his novel unfolds. His hero, Paphnuce, appears to incarnate Christian virtue but is secretly torn apart by carnal lusts. Recalling an episode of his youth, he decides to convert the actress Thaïs whose lascivious performance had aroused him at the age of fifteen.


The truth of the matter is that the monk has been obsessed by the woman ever since. He harbours a jealous hatred toward her former lover, the epicurean philosopher Nicias, and vows that he will not leave Alexandria until Thaïs agrees to follow him to a convent in the desert. Convinced that Paphnuce possesses magical powers which will guarantee eternal youth, the courtesan offers herself to him. He resists her advances but agrees to accompany her to a banquet. At this point (the halfway mark in the novel), the action is interrupted for about fifty pages while a philosophical discussion takes place in dialogue form. As the participants get steadily drunker, they expound a very bold and sacrilegious thesis. God, they insist, having made a mess of creation, sought to atone for all the suffering He had indirectly inflicted on mankind. Thus He created in Helen of Troy, and not Christ, the saviour who would take upon herself the wickedness of the world.


After Helen's death, her immortal spirit was incarnated in new forms, and at this very moment, the world's redeemer is none other than Thaïs. Before the evening is over, the men are eyeing her covetously, one guest commits suicide, and various people are copulating under the banquet table. Thaïs leaves the hall in disgust, convinced that men in general are nothing but satyrs. Having already been profoundly affected by Paphnuce's promise of eternal life, she now becomes an easy prey to his proselytizing zeal.


The monk's victory over so-called sin is short-lived, however. Devoured by sexual jealousy as he imagines the men whom Thaïs has welcomed into her bed, he treats her cruelly as they make their way to the convent under the scorching desert sun. Once converted, she becomes a veritable angel. Her presence irradiates the convent where she finds peace and fulfillment. Paphnuce, on the other hand, goes downhill. He is increasingly tormented by erotic fantasies involving Thaïs in spite of (because of?) the mortifications he imposes on his flesh. When he realizes that divine grace has deserted him, he takes refuge on top of a tall column in an abandoned city. He is such a tourist attraction that the city is rebuilt around him and begins to flourish again. In a desperate attempt to escape from himseslf, Paphnuce abandons his column and finds shelter far away in a tomb. But even here his obsessions pursue him. In a hallucination, he imagines that the beauteous instrumentalist painted on the wall of his new dwelling has come to life and taunts him about his chastity. No longer able to endure these torments, the sex-crazed monk seeks out Thaïs in her convent where she is dying in the odour of sanctity. His face has become so hideous that the nuns who are watching over her recoil in horror, crying out, "A vampire! A vampire!"


f the reader at any point in the story were tempted to feel even the slightest twinge of pity or sympathy for this preposterous hero, the all-pervading tone of irony would dissolve it at once. In his own nonchalant, refined, and serenely provocative way, Anatole France has drawn up in his novel an indictment of the Christian faith worthy of Voltaire and Renan. At least some aspects of Christianity's moral law are denounced here because, in the opinion of the author, they are life-denying, engender morbid fixations and dangerous delusions. One example will suffice to illustrate the author's insidiously corrosive style. Running like a leitmotif through the novel is the theme of carnal lust symbolized by the presence of little jackals which disappear whenever Paphnuce makes the sign of the cross: "At night, in the moonlight, seven little jackals waited in front of his cell, sitting on their rear ends, immobile, silent, pricking their ears. And it is believed that they were seven demons whom he kept at bay at this doorstep by the strength of his saintliness." As his sexual obsessions intensify, the little jackals multiply until they become as numerous as the grains of sand in the desert.


Needless to say, this ironic tone had to be eliminated when the novel was refashioned into an opera. Music by its very nature cannot lie. When Massenet placed his two protagonists on the lyric stage, he invited audiences to take them seriously. Other elements had to be discarded as well. The simplification of the novel which resulted explains the adverse reaction of many critics when the opera was first produced in 1894. It was generally agreed at the time that Massenet's Thaïs was quite unworthy of France's original work. Obviously, the operatic genre has unavoidable constraints. It must project a vision through sung dialogues, arias and ensembles. But the composer was sufficiently gifted to be able to capture in his music the profound emotional resonances of the novelist's text and thereby enhance the stripped-down libretto. Besides, his librettist, Louis Gallet, performed some very skillful surgery when adapting the original work. His "script" is made up to a large extent of passages quoted almost textually. These are adroitly connected. Those parts of the novel which were discarded simply did not lend themselves to a musical treatment. They are: Thaïs' oppressed childhood and baptism, the philosophical banquet (only the most superficial aspects of it are retained in the second scene of the first act) as well as the monk's bizarre sojourn on top of the column. Other parts were rearranged or modified to ensure the smooth flow of the plot.


In the novel, the hero attends a performance of Thaïs in the amphitheatre once he arrives in Alexandria whereas in the opera she haunts him in an erotic dream. In the novel, he meets the courtesan for the first time at her sumptuous dwelling before accompanying her to the banquet. It is her disgust with the revelries she sees there that prompts her decision to convert. In the opera, he encounters her first at the banquet, then has the decisive confrontation with her at her home. The words uttered by the instrumentalist in the latter part of the novel to Paphnuce are sung provocatively by Thaïs at the banquet in the opera. An alluring vision of Thaïs in the third act of the opera replaces the hallucination the monk experiences in the tomb episode of the novel. Finally, the monk learns of Thaïs' imminent death in the opera through another vision whereas in the novel this information is revealed by the clairvoyant simpleton, Paul.


All this pruning and refashioning enabled Gallet and Massenet to concentrate on what was for them the heart of the novel: the extremely dramatic confrontation between Eros and the Christian faith. To evoke it, the composer and his librettist based the action of the opera on two lines of destiny which move toward one another from opposite directions in the first act, cross in the second act only to diverge irreversibly in the third. The monk was renamed Athanaël in the opera for euphonic reasons, but also to discourage impudent detractors of Massenet from composing satirical verses and making the name "Paphnuce" rhyme with the word "prépuce", meaning in French the foreskin of the male sex organ. He and Thaïs spar with one another in the first act, each representing an ideal which appears anathema to the other. Before meeting the courtesan in the palace of his former fellow-reveller, Nicias, the monk, a victim of his overweening pride and repressed libido, works himself up to a frenzy of exaltation as he vows to conquer her for the greater glory of the Almighty. When they come face to face, Thaïs very perceptively senses in Athanaël a very ardent nature trapped in a strait-jacket of austere morality. She accuses him of blindness. She even dares him to approach her as she prepares to perform a kind of strip-tease.


What makes you so severe

And why do you belie the fire in your eyes?

What wretched madness makes you

Renounce your destiny?

You are a man born to love, what a mistake you have made.

Sit down beside us, adorn yourself with roses,

nothing is true except love, open your arms to love.


Thaïs uncovers intuitively a burningly erotic nature at the core of this man who has consecrated his whole being to God. So, at the end of the first act, Thaïs and Athanaël fight each other to a draw.


In the first scene of the second act the decisive confrontation between the two protagonists occurs. Their lengthy duet crackles with dramatic excitement precisely because each one advances and retreats in turn, neither is able to claim total victory. Athanaël visits Thaïs that very evening, pretending to be a potential lover eager to enhance his self-image by conquering a woman of her illustrious reputation. He promises her delights hitherto unknown. It is not necessary to be an expert in Freudian psychology to perceive the eroticism lurking under his ambiguously spiritual words: "I promise you more than delightful inebriation--and dreams of a fleeting night;--this felicity I bring you today will never end!... At first Thaïs mocks his presumptuousness, then takes offense at his aggressive denunciation of her hedonism, but is suddenly subjugated when Athanaël promises her eternal life. For a woman still radiantly beautiful but terrified at the thought of aging, this prospect is indeed fascinating. As she prepares to offer herself to the monk, Thaïs invokes the blessing of Venus. Afraid that he will succumb to the courtesan's charms, Athanaël prays to his God for assistance.


This moment of intense physical attraction is one of the only two points where the itineraries of the two protagonists intersect. The spell is broken, however, when Athanaël, exerting Herculean will-power, reveals himself as a cenobite monk who execrates everything Thaïs stands for. He appears, then, to have triumphed, because the courtesan, fearing for her life, sinks to her knees and begs for mercy. His victory seems assured the moment he promises Thaïs an eternity of bliss through the love of God. But she suddenly revolts against his growing ascendancy. Still torn between her hedonistic past and the promise of an exalting yet totally different future, she hurls her defiance at him before breaking out into hysterical laughter and sobbing.


From this point onward, their spiritual trajectories, united for a few fleeting moments, follow diametrically opposite paths. Thaïs begins her irreversible ascent toward sainthood whereas Athanaël plummets vertically into the very lusts from which he had vowed to save her. The famous orchestral interlude, the Meditation, performed immediately after their confrontation, expresses the courtesan's new-found beatitude. In his masterful analysis of the opera, Gérard Condé suggests that the main thrust of the philosophical discussions held during the banquet in Anatole France's novel finds a most appropriate expression in Massesnet's music. I fully agree. During the symposium, the Gnostic, Zénothémis, puts forward the heretical view that Eve, in addition to Helen, was a redeemer of mankind precisely because she had the courage to taste the fruit from the tree of Knowledge. The Meditation which ascends toward ecstasy expresses in musical terms this double redemptive role woman can play. Exalted by her aspiration to eternal life, Thaïs gains an illumination that gives her immediate access to pure knowledge and guarantees her salvation. She does not so much renounce Eros as sublimate it in order to experience infinitely greater joys. Athanaël, on the contrary had made a spiritual commitment which was ultimately incompatible with his burningly sensual nature, and from the second scene of the second act till the end of the opera, he will pay dearly for it.


When Thaïs seeks out Athanaël at the beginning of the second scene of Act II and defers humbly to his authority, the power he wields over her seems total. But this is an illusion. From now until Thaïs' death, the monk will be more and more the slave of a libido exacerbated by non-stop repression and mortification, and the former courtesan will serve as the catalyst of his sexual torture. Every one of his actions demonstrates his involontary enslavement to the vital force he supposedly execrates. He smashes the exquisite statue of Eros, the one possession Thaïs cherishes, the only one she wished to preserve from her past. It was a gift from Nicias, the admirer who had spent a fortune to enjoy her exclusive favour for one whole week. This is reason enough for Athanaël to want to destroy it. In Act III, he vents his jealous rage and sexual frustrations on the woman he unconsciously craves as they wend their way through the desert. "Break your body," "annihilate your flesh," Walk, expiate," he commands her sadistically, relenting only when he notices blood covering her lovely feet which he then kisses adoringly (here again, a Freudian psychologist would have a field-day). He is overcome with sadness when he bids her farewell at the convent where she will spend the rest of her life in penitence. Then come the erotic hallucinations, blasphemous words against the God and the religion he had served so faithfully. Finally, having returned to the convent where Thaïs is dying, he cries out longingly for her physical presence. But the former courtesan, now a saint and enthralled by a holy vision, is oblivious to his torments.


Thus the dramatic irony is complete. Athanaël has accomplished his mission, that is, the conversion of a sinful woman, but discovers only too late that what he thought he wanted above all else to achieve was the very opposite of what he unconsciously yearned to possess all along. No one listening attentively to Massenet's score can fail to discern the irony of this situation in the music. As I emphasized a little while ago, the composer could not reproduce the sardonic tone prevalent in Anatole France's style. Instead he evokes eloquently in his opera the tragedy of a man who discovers only too late what he really desired of life. And it is around the Meditation theme that Athanaël's despair crystallizes. We hear it at the end of the first scene of the third act where he bids farewell at the entrance of the convent to the woman he loves. His vocal line expressing deep emotion, then anguish, shatters against the melody as the latter unfolds in its impassive serenity. Then in the final scene of the opera, the monk's impassioned outcries fall on deaf ears as Thaïs' voice soars ecstatically on the poignant theme as we hear it for the last time. And so, through the beauty of his music, Massenet injected into Anatole France's story emotions which were probably furthest from the author's mind when he wrote it: pity and compassion.


There exists an unwritten law in nineteenth-century operatic tradition according to which sopranos and baritones can never find fulfilment in a love relationship. Sopranos gravitate towards tenors. Their encounters may be marked by tragedy, but soprano heroines generally prefer to suffer with their beloved tenors rather than escape danger in the arms of the baritones who covet them. Tosca stabs Scarpia rather than submit to his advance. In Il trovatore Leonora maintains an aloof, disdainful attitude towards the Count di Luna who would go to any lengths to win her heart. And Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, although overwhelmed by guilt, is on the verge of committing adultery with the tenor, King Gustave of Sweden, whom she finds far more appealing than her baritone husband, the loyal Ankerström. Carmen illustrates this vocal misalliance in reverse. Here we have the female equivalent of the baritone, a mezzo-soprano heroine, who brings doom to herself and the unfortunate tenor she snares. This is not to say that sopranos and baritones are always at loggerheads. They can experience very tender father-daughter relationships. But when circumstances bring them together as lovers or potential lovers, their attitudes toward one another are more often than not very ambivalent.


This ambivalence prevails in Jules Massenet's Thaïs. The beguiling courtesan, Thaïs of Alexandria, and the monk, Athanaël come from worlds so radically different and represent philosophies of life so diametrically opposed that the singular attraction they feel for one another cries out for the gripping contrast provided by the soprano and baritone vocal categories. The moments in the second act and in the oasis scene of the third act where their souls seem to merge are but fleeting. Immediately afterwards, the paths of their destinies diverge again, thus necessitating more than ever the soprano-baritone opposition. The most expensive whore in the Middle East becomes, in the words of David Little john, "Saint Thaïs of the Bleeding Feet," whereas the priest who converts her eventually realizes that he had been pursuing a mirage of spiritual purity all along. The two protagonists, then, make ideal exemplary figures, because they embody dominant tendencies which emerge powerfully during the course of the opera.


According to Jean-Michel Brèque, Anatole France charts the evolution of Thaïs from sinner to saint far more convincingly than does Jules Massenet. Unconstrained by considerations of time and space, the French novelist has ample opportunity to prepare us for the heroine's spiritual crisis. Obviously, Louis Gallet, Massenet's librettist, could not possibly have squeezed so many events into the relatively rigid structure of an opera. He counted on the composer's music to give tangible form to the courtesan's spiritual yearnings. In his own way, Massenet, with the able assistance of his librettist, does succeed in filling in the psychological gaps. Through the immediacy and intensity of his music, the composer gives life to a character far more complex than would appear at first glance. In other words, Thaïs is infinitely more than the stereotyped "Tart with a heart."


Guided by Louis Gallet's libretto, the attentive listener will perceive an all-pervading weariness in the music Thaïs sings at her very first appearance in the second scene of the first act. This taedium vitae does not manifest itself in bitter or anguished accents. It finds expression in a diaphanous melody, half recitative, half air, rising and falling by turns, that she sings, as though smiling sadly and ironically, to Nicias, the wealthy epicurean who has spent a fortune to enjoy her favours for one whole week. Thaïs reminds him that the week is coming to an end:


I am Thaïs, the fragile idol/Who comes to sit for the last time/at your flower-laden table.../Tomorrow, I will be nothing more to you than a name.


Then she echoes in a minor key Nicias' wistful phrase acknowledging the evanescent nature of their relationship, as though she were resigned to the fragility and eventual disappearance of all things human:


We have loved one another for one long week.../Let the blessed hours bloom and pass,/and let us ask this night for nothing more/than a little intoxication and divine oblivion.


In the introduction to Thaïs' "Mirror" aria at the beginning of the second act, her awareness of life's essential emptiness finds expression in a very different kind of music. The brilliantly superficial theme associated with the company of actors that signaled the courtesan's entrance in the first act reappears, but the orchestra erases it, so to speak, by a series of perpetually changing modulations suggesting her agitation and anxiety. As she decries the heartlessness of men and the mean-spiritedness of women, the orchestration that winds itself around the motif of her sensual beauty suggests a sense of bitterness verging on despair.


The succession of disappointing relationships upon which Thaïs had embarked long before her affair with Nicias betrays a subconscious quest for a spiritual absolute. For a woman like Thaïs, it can be none other than Love to the infinite degree. Until Athanaël irrupts into her existence, this longing for fulfilment takes on the imperfect form of the worship of the goddes Venus and her accomplice, Eros. In the eyes of the courtesan, they represent the mysterious yet all-powerful, all-encompassing life-force, the veritable ground of being. Although physical in its manifestation, this life-force remains nevertheless luminous and pure. Unquestioning and unconditional obedience to Love leads to the expansion of the imagination and the senses. This, in turn, engenders euphoria. I base my interpretation on the heroine's two invocations to the goddess sung to the same softly entrancing melody. The first occurs in the middle of her mirror aria after she has voiced her fear of growing old, the second takes place just as she is about to offer herself to the monk whom, she suspects, possesses magical powers to arrest the again process.


If we bear in mind the fervor with which Thaïs celebrates the cult of Eros before her conversion, we can better understand her obsession with preserving her beauty. We can sympathize and even feel compassion for her when she gives vent, in her mirror aria, to her feelings of dread at the prospect of growing old, of no longer being Thaïs, the queen of love. The words she sings at the beginning of the second act, "Dis-moi que je suis belle et que je serai belle éternellement" (Tell me that I am beautiful and will remain so for all eternity), born aloft on a melody by turns whispered and searingly intense, cannot in all fairness be reduced to the expression of an aging woman's vanity. Before a mystical illumination draws her upward to a higher form of love, Thaïs believes that physical beauty is the indispensable catalyst of passion and, consequently, that without it there can be no exaltation of life-force, no triumph over the void. If old age and death were to destroy that which makes her so alluring to men, the Eros she worships, inseparable from her finite, physical existence, would perish as well. As we have seen, she cowers in terror before the fanatical Athanaël when she thinks he wants to kill her, because Eros and the life-force it enhances represent the transcendent dimension for her. As long as she is alive and in possession of her beauty, she remains in contact with that which, before her conversion, she is convinced constitutes the divine.


Later, the melting, caressing phrases of the violin solo in the Meditation, rising over the orchestra's shimmering modulations evoke the courtesan's spiritual voyage as she moves from a purely earthly conception of love to the all-embracing, infinite one promised by the Christian faith.


What is startling in Thaïs's conversion is the effortless transition she makes from sexual love to Christian love. It's as though there were no fundamental difference between the two. Her commitment to God is simply the sublimation of Eros and its extrapolation to the infinite degree. Thaïs moves from whoredom to self-abnegation because, having enjoyed to the full and exhausted all earthly forms of pleasure, she is now drawn to the far more exciting new ones which await her in the desert convent. Her excruciatingly painful trek across the burning sands to the convent as well as the mortifications she imposes on herself once she arrives there constitute the sacrifices necessary to reach the state of spiritual ecstasy she longs for even before her soul leaves her body for good. Herein lies the significance of the final duet between Thaïs and Athanaël. As she is dying, the heroine has a celestial vision. She sees (imagines?) the saints, the heavenly hosts and the Almighty himself welcoming her into the realm of eternal beatitude.


The music she sings at this moment is the very same theme Massenet had given to the monk in the opening scene of the opera where he expressed his resolve to save the courtesan from damnation. But whereas it had an almost martial rhythm when Athanaël sang it, the music reappears as a rapturously sensual outpouring on Thaïs' lips. It is irrefutable proof that, for her, the issue of redemption after a sinful existence is quite irrelevant. Thaïs never considers herself an immoral creature. It is only Athanaël who fulminates against her. Once she embraces Christian virtue, she is as innocent in her new state as she had been in so-called sin. Thaïs simply sacrifices fleeting erotic delights to an infinitely higher form of pleasure: an eternity of spiritual love guaranteed by God.


The courtesan, then, has had from the beginning a vague idea at least of what she wants out of life. Although she cannot pinpoint the source of her eventual fulfilment, she acquires a sharp awareness of the direction in which she would like to move after the promise the monk holds out to her. He, on the other hand, as I have emphasized, is torn apart between what he thinks he is and what he would really like to be. Only towards the end of the opera does Athanaël fully accept his ardently erotic nature. I would agree with David Littlejohn who considers Athanaël as being "almost as demonic in his unholy lust as Claude Frollo, the evil priest of Hugo's novel Notre Dame de Paris. The monk's carnal lusts are all the more frightening because they camouflage themselves behind a proselytizing aggressiveness. He sincerely believes that he must save the sin-infested city of Alexandria from Thaïs and Thaïs from herself.


What he does not understand is the insidious working on the subconscious level of his all-pervading libido. Unbeknown to him, he is propelled by two very unholy motives: craving for sole possession of the woman whose lifestyle he thinks he despises and jealousy towards her innumerable admirers. While Anatole France treats the monk as an object of derision, Jules Massenet and Louis Gallet depict him as a tormented man whose tragedy consists in accepting his true nature too late. We have music by turns chromatic, vituperative, expansive and intensely moving which conveys Athanaël's inner turmoil as he goes from brooding to exalted self-righteousness, and from there to utter agony and despair.


It is as though Eros takes revenge on him for his attempts to repress it by triumphing over him at the very moment he thinks he has vanquished it, namely, when he converts Thaïs to his faith. His whole life, from the time he resisted temptation as an adolescent at the courtesan's doorstep to his final, anguishing encounter with her at the end of the opera , is one needless, non-stop guilt trip.


Naturally, as soon as Thaïs enters the convent for good, Athanaël begins to feel the pain of irreparable loss. Although he will not yet dare admit it, he has been conquered by the woman he had sworn to capture for the greater glory of God. The purely human love he feels for Thaïs is now fed by his un-sublimated Eros. It bursts forth in another vision occurring in the third act where she taunts him with the same words sung to the same theme that had marked their confrontation at the end of Act I. And his erotic passion acquires a lacerating intensity in the final scene of the opera. As his beloved is dying and oblivious to his grief, Athanaël becomes fully aware at last that he was a pseudo-saint all along, and that he has destroyed his one chance for happiness which could have redeemed him as a human being. The music eloquently accentuates Athanaël's agony. The Meditation theme as well as the melody of the first act in which he had voiced his determination to save the sinning courtesan rise up again like some invisible barrier. The voice of the now saintly Thaïs soars heaven-bound on these phrases while Athanaël's anguished supplications break against them and fall.


Here you have further proof, if more were necessary, that, in the operatic love relationship, baritones and sopranos really don't mix.

Until next time,

Leonard Rosmarin


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