A new production of Camille Saint Saëns’s hot Samson et Dalila* opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2018-2019 season on Monday, September 24. As operas go, Samson et Dalila sits, I would say, quite high on the list of “French operas swimming just below the surface of the standard repertory,” which includes, if you want to stay more or less contemporary with Saint Saëns, operas by Chabrier, Thomas, Chausson, Dukas, Reyer, D’Indy, the lesser Bizets and Massenets, even, later, the singles of Debussy and Charpentier. But of all these, Samson et Dalila is more frequently performed. I mean, when was the last time you saw Louise at the Met?**
Unlike the others, Samson et Dalila has the virtue of two vocally strong characters whose signature solos, Dalila’s mainly, a languid Love Duet, and the provocative Bacchanale have been at home with us since the dawn of recorded opera, unlike snatches from the works of those other composers mentioned above. Okay, Depuis le jour, but ‘greatest hits’ of the rest are either nonexistent or very very hard to find, at least on this side of the pond.
Though the musical framework surrounding the hits in Samson et Dalila is not at all unpleasant, it sometimes stagnants, leading, dramatically speaking, to a lot of standing around, particularly in the first Act where the downtrodden Hebrews and the oppressive Philistines alternatively give voice to their take on the situation. Early on from the chorus emerges Samson, who urges his people to rise up, affirm their beliefs, and take action. Which they do, though the action is offstage.
Roberto Alagna is Samson in this, his first at the Met. The Biblical character’s feats of strength and moral purpose imply a large shiny voice; as fitting, Alagna’s instrument has developed volume and a broader range than in his earlier years, and, as staged here, Samson is at the center of Act I. Like Rhadames, Alagna takes the heroic stance easily. But on the evening here reviewed he sounded on the dry side already in the first Act, and by Act II it was clear he was experiencing serious difficulties. Hopefully these are temporary; Alagna was replaced by tenor Kristian Benedikt, who, in addition to making his Metropolitan Opera debut, finished the final Act with aplomb.
Elīna Garanča, on the other hand, as Dalila, is superb in all aspects. In addition to a natural beauty and an eye catching stage presence, perfect for a seductress, she has accessed lower reaches of her voice to meet the musical demands of the role. In this new production under the direction of Darko Tresnjak, Dalila perhaps thinks her prior relationship with Samson can be rekindled, and, when they are together in Act II, maybe she has some hesitations about the snare she and the Philistines have set for Samson. In the last Act she seems to have misgivings about or pity for Samson, who stands before her blinded, sheared, and enslaved. One senses Dalila’s not really 100% on board with the celebration...it’s more in her body language. In sum, brava!
The High Priest of Dagon is forcefully sung by bass Laurent Naouri, whom we have seen a lot of in recent productions. Abimélech is portrayed by Elchin Azizov; the Old Hebrew is bass Dmitry Belosselskiy; the First and Second Philistine are sung, respectively, by Tony Stevenson and Bradley Garvin; Mark Schowalter is a Philistine Messenger.
Sir Mark Elder conducts a finely etched reading of Saint-Saën’s luscious score, from the still of a summer’s night in the desert to the wild Bacchanale of Act III.
Samson et Dalila is not by any means a long opera, but, as with Wagner, any staging of Samson et Dalila must cope with the long static moments: the choral work of Act I, a prolonged seduction scene in Act II, and the Bacchanale and celebration of Dagon in Act III, culminated by the collapse of the Temple. Though one gets the sense that Tresnjak created small touches of gesture and expression to delineate fine shifts in the emotional sands, at other times the players seem aimless. At least in the love scene of Act II, the centerpiece of the opera, Alagna and Garnača settle into something approximating sincere, though not vulgar or inappropriate.
Alexander Dodge’s colorful sets seem constructed to represent a world out of time, but then this puts the “timely” costumes and libretto text at odds. The materials from which the structures are built lend themselves to a film set of a more futuristic story, not 1150 BCE as listed in the program. The Temple, which is two halves of a see-through male torso from the waist up, has a passageway through the center: Philistines, maybe even tourists, go in and out throughout Act III; the acrobatic dancers scale it and dangle from it during the Bacchanale, and so on. The torso doesn’t collapse at the end, making it unclear in what way Samson has regained his strength, but there sure is a lot of noise. Austin McCormick’s choreographies in Act I and Act III show a lightness of touch in Act I and, in the Bacchanale, a lot of swirling, athletic swinging and climbing. Big energy stuff, guaranteed to be arousing. Linda Cho’s costumes for the dancers are appropriately scant.
Samson et Dalila is an opera well worth your time invested.
Review performance: Monday, October 1, 2018
Photos: Ken Howard.
Samson et Dalila is performed as written in three acts. The running time of the HD performance is just about three and a half hours; there are two intermissions.
*Samson et Dalila holds a special place in my vast wing of Metropolitan Opera memories: it was the final performance of a special ’64-’65 season, a season significant because it was the first of the standing room performances. The cast sported the great Jon Vickers as Samson. Even back then I prepped for performances, here, appropriately, with the Vickers/Gorr/Blanc EMI recording (on LP of course), conducted by George Prêtre. In the following season, I witnessed Prêtre conducting Gounod’s Faust (in the fall) and two performances of Parsifal (in the spring), the second of which was my last stand on Broadway and 39th, then my first Tristan und Isolde with Birgit Nilsson in the new Metropolitan Opera House. These are very vivid memories.
**The Met premiered Louise with the Company in January of 1921 with Geraldine Farrar in the title role, a second production in 1930 with Lucrezia Bori, later the lovely Grace Moore and Dorothy Kirsten in the last, the 49th, on December 10, 1948. It has not be revived since. But happily the New York City Opera staged Louise with Beverly Sills in the spring of 1977. Grabbed it, enjoyed it.
Heavenly in NYC for OM’s opening night of the 2018-2019 season…even the traffic cooperated! Ciao!