Conviction by a Sleight of Hand: Samson et Dalila

ItalyItaly Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila: Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome. Conductor: Charles Dutoit. Rome, 9.4.2013. (JB)

Stage Director and Designer, Carlus Padrissa with La fura dels Baus
Costumes, Chu Uroz
Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani

Dalila – Olga Borodina
Samson – Aleksandrs Antonenko
The High Priest of Dagone – Eichin Azizov
Abimélech, Satrap of Gaza – Mikahil Koroebeinikov

Alice Munro has announced that her new collection of stories, Dear Life, will be her last. Each story is a miniature jewel, like the lieder which make up a Schubert song cycle. She pares episodes back, almost to banalities, but then, by a sleight of hand, transports the reader into a stratosphere of humanity which is as revealing as it is shocking. We haven’t been here before. But we are somehow made to feel that we ought to have been. Chekov alone can stand along side her. He too involves the reader with much the same art in his short stories.

When it comes to musical composition, Saint-Saëns is the top of the class in this art. Like Verdi, he has no fear of hum-drum, the everyday, of banality, to put it at its crudest.. But whereas Verdi is carried along by a burning sincerity and unshakable conviction, Saint-Saëns’s art is also informed by a whiff of irony. This ought not to work, but just let me show you how it does, is at the basis of his unsurpassed technique. He did let the irony hang out without reservation in Carnival of the Animals. But he forbade that piece to be performed in public in his lifetime.

Take Dalila’s arias or the Bacchanalia Scene. Both are supreme examples of their genre. You will find non better in nineteenth century opera. Saint-Saëns’s final scene convinces by his sleight of hand questioning of it (the subtlest irony) as against, say, Wagner’s Venus music in Tannhäuser.

Charles Dutoit well understands the composer’s subtleties. He drew some impressive playing from the fine Rome Opera Orchestra, never missing a detail and especially with the able wind players. And much of the pleasure is in this detail. Saint-Saëns is as great an orchestrator as Richard Strauss. But less loud or vulgar. To be sure, the Bacchanalia Scene is a dense jungle of orchestral sound. But every “leaf” of this jungle has been carefully nuanced by the composer and Maestro Dutoit never misses a note of these opportunities. And what a thrilling spectrum of sound he built through this meticulous attention. The density of this scoring was never better illuminated. The players were audibly eating from the maestro’s hands.

I wish I could report as enthusiastically on Dutoit’s handling of the Chorus. Roberto Gabbiani seemed to have prepared the Chorus with his usual attention to precision. At least as far as I could tell. For there were moments when Chorus details were covered by the rich complexities of the orchestration. For instance, the opening chorus of the Hebrews in slavery (a magnificent fugue) got swamped by some orchestral colouring. Elsewhere, Dutoit was careful to realise to perfection, details of the solo singers and the orchestra. Masterly balance.

Teatro dell’Opera had invited Carlus Padrissa with his mime troupe, La Fura dels Baus, to take charge of the staging. They did this with considerable dignity. Gauze curtains were lowered and raised at various stage levels with see-through projections in black and white flashed onto these screens, almost always with some regard for the opera’s rhythms. The immense projection of Dalilia’s eye on the front-stage gauze with Samson pacing hypnotically from stage right to stage left, behind the projection, was hauntingly effective as an introduction to Act 2. (This Act belongs to Dalila.) Chu Uroz’s elegantly cut, all black and white costumes, lent further dignity to the proceedings.

No peoples can make effective political protest like the Spanish. And Mr Padrissa and his troupe struck here in the Bacchanalia Scene, where prison guards were seen inflicting sexual abuse in various tortures on members of their opposite sex. Even Dick Cheney could not have thought up “entertainment” as nasty as this. The shock of this worked for me. But I doubt if Camille Saint-Saëns would have approved, despite the disturbing music he provides. And there were certainly voices of dissent in the audience.

This opera has only two singers. The rest are little more than walk-on parts.

Olga Borodina made her Rome debut in a recital with piano at the Teatro Ghione (500 seats, sold out) in the autumn of 2001. A voluptuous woman, she strode onto the stage and with her powerful first note, had the effect of blowing the entire audience out into the street. Singing doesn’t come any more arresting than this. Fasten you seat belts. Many of us thought how effective she would be as Dalila. (She had already sung the role at Covent Garden, a decade earlier, with Placido Domingo.)

Teatro dell’Opera has three times the seating capacity of the Ghione, though it was not sold out, so perhaps I should not be s surprised to find her, a decade further along, somewhat underpowered. Programme notes remind me that Dalila has been sung in this theatre by Ebbe Stignani (1946), Fedora Barbieri (1956) and Giulietta Simionato (1963). I would guess that all three ladies gave the part their whole. Ms Borodina’s performance was less than wholesome.

She wasn’t simply being ungenerous with her voice. The contained performance had its upside. It permitted her to attend to those style-defining nuances which the composer introduces as a sleight of hand. Borodina relishes these unique phrases. And so did we in the audience. For me, her aria at the end of Act One –Printemps qui commence– produced the most beautifully expressive singing of the evening. Mon couer s’ovre à ta voix –the opera’s showstopper, sounded underpowered and somewhat unconvincing. But maybe that is just me thinking back to the younger Borodina. Or to those ladies in the first part of the twentieth century.

Aleksandrs Antonenko is as fine a Samson as you are likely to find on today’s scene. His voice is exactly the right heroic tenor SS must have had in mind. He is much better when he has to be expressive –Vois ma misère hélas– in the prison scene of the third act, than when he has to be stiring – Arrètez o mes frères– in his opening scene. He does not have the finesse of Nicolai Gedda, but nor does he miss most of the subtle phrasing. The stage directors deprived him of a wonderful theatrical moment where the blinded Samson –at the strong man’s request- is led by a child to the temple pillars at the end. No small child. Spanish employment laws?

Jack Buckley