The Met Streams Samson

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Wednesday, June 24
Saint-Saëns’s  Samson et Dalila
~ 2Hrs 22Mins
Starring Elīna Garanča, Roberto Alagna, Laurent Naouri, Elchin Azizov, and Dmitry Belosselskiy, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. From October 20, 2018.

The biblical story of Samson and Delilah has resonated throughout time — it’s an exciting tale of desire and passion, violence, and revenge. In his adaptation of the story, Saint-Saëns intensifies the raw human emotions with sensual music – music that can please the ear, warm the heart, or get the blood flowing. Much is required of the title pair, a mezzo-soprano who must be both warmly seductive and steely, and a tenor who must transform from invincible to broken to reborn. When everything comes together, it is an extraordinary opera – a towering biblical epic. Unhappily, this particular production does not quite make the mark.

The statically conceived and gimmicky staging by director Darko Tresnjak in his Met debut (after his Broadway hit, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”), is definitely impressive in scale, but somehow manages to be both gaudy and dull at the very same time. It is an all too clear demonstration of the Met’s misguided preference for over-the-top grand-opera trappings that too often get in the way of the art form. Not to cast aspersions on Las Vegas shows in the 50’s and 60’s, but that is what this set resembles – and it just doesn’t work. The acting is stiff and old-fashioned and the biblical tale of war, seduction, and revenge rolls along with hardly any spark, providing a few moments of flash but failing to capture the legendary scale of the story or involve us in its emotional impact.

Saint-Saëns’s take on the story of Samson and Delilah has many of the standard hallmarks of French grand opera — opportunities for impressive vocal displays, beautiful choruses, and a dramatic plot involving the forces of good and evil set against an exotic, historical backdrop. Tenor Roberto Alagna (we’ve seen him in Carmen, Don Carlo, and Rondine) sings the strong-man hero Samson, who falls victim to the seductive powers of Dalila —mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča (we’ve seen her so far in two trouser roles – Sesto in Clemenza and the Rosenkavalier of that opera’s title – as well as two seductive female roles, Carmen and the beautiful Sarah in Roberto Devereux). Bass-baritone Laurent Naouri sings the sinister High Priest of Dagon, and conductor Sir Mark Elder is on the podium.

Saint-Saëns’ original conception for Samson was as an oratorio, and that’s exactly what this production sometimes feels like, mostly owing to its woeful lack of chemistry onstage. Garanča and Alagna are both celebrated stars, but in this production there is no discernable chemistry – they seem distant, detached and unable to back up their vocal characterizations with actions or gestures – especially unsatisfying in the case of Alagna whose voice in his younger years was adequate, if not interesting or distinguished, but who now struggles with both his voice and his acting. Austin McCormick’s choreography for the showpiece Bacchanale in Act III just seemed gratuitous and cheesy, with scantily clad, tattooed men (and, eventually, some women) gyrating in nothing but thongs before throngs of Philistines sipping wine in garish red clothes.

As the story begins, we are in Gaza around 1150BC. The prelude is supposed to portray the despair of the defeated Israelites but feels ponderous rather than tragic. In a square outside the temple of Dagon, a group of Hebrews beg Jehovah for relief from their bondage to the Philistines in a melancholy chorus “Dieu d’Israël” (God of Israel), which leads into a fugue “Nous avons vu nos cités renversées” (We have seen our cities overturned). Samson tries to revive the Israelites’ morale and faith in God “Arrêtez, ô mes frères” (Stop, Oh my brothers) with a rousing aria set against the chorus’s continuous prayer. Abimelech, the Philistine governor, appears and taunts the Israelites, saying that they are helpless because their god has abandoned them. He declares that his God, Dagon, is far superior. The Hebrews cower until Samson rallies them. Enraged, Abimelech attacks an unarmed Samson with his sword. Somehow, Samson manages to wrest the sword from Abimelech and then kill him with it.

Afraid of what might happen, the Hebrews flee, abandoning Samson. The High Priest of Dagon comes from the temple and curses the Hebrews, but especially Samson’s incredible strength. He utters a further curse that alludes to his plot to use Dalila’s beauty to outwit Samson’s strength “Qu’enfin une compagne infâme trahisse son amour!” (Finally, an infamous companion who will betray his love!”).

Dawn breaks as the Hebrews offer another humble prayer to God in a style reminiscent of plainchant. Dalila emerges from the temple along with several priestesses of Dagon. As they walk down the temple steps, they sing of the pleasures of spring. Dalila engages seductively with Samson proclaiming that he has won her heart and bids him to come with her to her home in the valley of Sorek. As she charms him, an old Hebrew warns of the danger this woman presents and Samson prays for God’s protection from her charms. Dalila and the priestesses begin a sexually charged dance for Samson and after the dance, Dalila sings how spring is blossoming all around her yet, in her heart, she feels like it is still winter “Printemps qui commence” (Spring begins). Samson struggles with his desire for Dalila and the old Hebrew repeats his cautionary plea. His warning, however, is obviously in vain.

The second act is the seduction of Samson in Dalila’s retreat in the Valley of Sorek. This act includes Garanča’s famous “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” which is justly the most celebrated aria of the piece: its vocal line is gorgeously written, and as in many of opera’s most intimate moments, the orchestra mostly recedes. This is Garanča’s shining moment with long, breathing phrases, that give the music a slow-burning sensuality to match the scene. You know the story from here, Samson struggles to suppress his desire but fails and Dalila, when he is at his most vulnerable, cuts his hair allowing the High Priest and his Philistines to subdue him and carry him off to prison.

The third act includes a gruesome prison scene when the blinded Samson struggles and prays for forgiveness. The music outside turns savage as the priests dance a wild Bacchanale. The blind Samson enters led by a boy. He is ridiculed by the High Priest and the crowd. Dalila taunts him further by reminding him of the details of her plot in an angry variant of her love song. When the priests try to force him to kneel before Dagon, he has the boy lead him to the two main pillars of the temple. Telling the child to flee, Samson prays to God to restore his strength, and then pushes down the pillars, crushing himself and his foes. The curtain falls.

If you like spectacle, incredible sets, and costumes – and naked men — this is the opera for you. If you enjoy being moved by music, voice and compelling tellings of moving stories, I’d wait for the next three operas this week – all winners!

Photo Credits

1.              Roberto Alagna as Samson and Elīna Garanča as Dalila in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila at the Met, 2018. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

2.              Laurent Naori as the High Priest of Dagon in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila at the Met, 2018. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

3.              Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča on the kitschy set by Alexander Dodge in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila at the Met, 2018. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

4.              The temple set in Act III, which includes the famous Bacchanale and is dominated by an enormous statue of the god Dagon which divides in half and serves as a door. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

5.               Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanča as the title characters in Act III of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila” Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

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