United States Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Metropolitan Opera, New York / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Broadcast Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera to Everyman Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 20.10.2018. (JPr)
Production – Darko Tresnjak
Set Designer – Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer – Linda Cho
Lighting Designer – Donald Holder
Choreographer – Austin McCormick
Dalila – Elīna Garanča
Samson – Roberto Alagna
High Priest of Dagon – Laurent Naouri
Abimélech – Elchin Azizov
An Old Hebrew – Dmitry Belosselskiy
Live in HD Director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host – Susan Graham
It is a dawn of a new age at the Met, or so it seems. Amongst the innovations already announced – leaving aside the arrival of Yannick Nézet-Séguin as music director – will be Sunday matinees and a February midwinter break. Perhaps the antiquated backstage practices will be next. There are a lot of people seen during the intervals as scenery is shifted and I am sure they have important jobs to do but it always seems like ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.
Perhaps new ideas will also extend to production values, but that might take time considering how far ahead seasons are planned. This new Samson et Dalila basically could have been an old one in refurbished sets and with new costumes. However, despite writing this – and because I enjoyed it – there really does not seem much that could be done with Saint-Saëns’s opera apart from an updating to the war-torn Middle East of the twenty-first century. Frankly, something that radical is never going to happen at the Met!
We were told how the composer’s original idea was for his 1877 Samson et Dalila to be an oratorio, but that this was quickly changed into the opera we see now because Saint-Saëns started by composing the three-hander Act II first. This is very strange considering how Acts I and III are irredeemably static with predominantly choruses, arias, and – as rather preciously staged here – an interminable Bacchanale in the final act. My own history with this opera is as long ago as the 1980s and ‘90s with singers like Jon Vickers, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras as Samson and Shirley Verrett and Agnes Baltsa as Dalila.
At the start of the acts we see a crescent-shaped ‘proscenium’ (that remains ever-present) with a screen showing a mass of handprints that was an arresting image for the enslaved Jewish people of this familiar biblical tale from the Book of Judges. When this ‘curtain’ lifts the director Darko Tresnjak and his set designer Alexander Dodge – both making their Met debuts – bring us two large towers with a central staircase with the Israelites clothed – by Linda Cho – in grey at the bottom and to the front of the stage, with the Philistines in gold lording over them. Samson wanders down the stairs, Abimélech, the Philistine governor, arrives and is quickly dispatched, the Israelites flee, the High Priest of Dagon enters and curses them, before Dalila arrives to attempt to seduce Samson. Writing it like that it appears that there is quite a bit going on in the opera but there really isn’t.
Dodge’s sets have throughout a sort of fretwork appearance that Tresnjak explained was inspired by a black-and-white photo of Gloria Swanson he once saw when she was covered in a lace veil. The second act takes place in Dalila’s very plush ‘country retreat’ in the Valley of Sorek that the audience applauded on its reveal. We see another staircase, this time with a mirror at the top for no discernible reason and a firepit centre stage. This is a huge set for a very intimate act. Samson loses his self-control, hair and eyesight offstage.
Act III evolves into showing us the most impressive of the sets; the first scene has the now-blind Samson – as usual – pushing around a huge mill wheel in his dungeon. The final scene at the Temple of Dagon was quite stunning – cue more audience applause – and a massive statue of the golden god Dagon now dominates the stage where everyone is robed in red and gold. The statue is in two halves to allow some characters and the dancers to enter and leave the proceedings. The rest of the chorus sing from tiers around the stage. Okay so far – apart from the very tame eroticism of Austin McCormick’s choreography – until a botched ending when a coup de théâtre with something happening to the two parts of Dagon doesn’t happen! Samson breaks his chains and exits, all concerned just stay where they are, there are some lighting effects and lots of dry ice and that is it as the curtain falls for the final time.
Tresnjak seems to have left all the leading characters alone and they do not seem to have been given much direction but – truth be told – they are rather lost for the most part on the huge stage surrounded by monumental sets. Elīna Garanča looked – in her inviting(!) Act I bejewelled gown – the personification of the evil-seductress Dalila and one glance should have been enough to ensnare Samson, or anyone similarly inclined, though that wasn’t always apparent when they were together. Garanča and Roberto Alagna (Samson) are generally two fine actor-singers, but the demands of their roles also seemed to affect their performances.
Things did warm up a little in Act II, yet Dalila strangely wasn’t – for a time – as seductively clothed as earlier. Garanča confirmed in a backstage interview at the end of this act something that was becoming increasingly apparent and that was how her (no mention of Tresnjak) Dalila was conflicted; she must seduce him, find his secret and betray the man she genuinely has some feelings for. Mindful of current #MeToo sensibilities Garanča said how there are enough ‘bitches’ in opera! In the closeups for the cinema transmission all these emotions could be seen reflected in Garanča’s face, though I suspect this would have been lost in the cavernous Met auditorium.
Roberto Alagna was a bit impassive throughout though there was the sense in the end that his character had been on a journey. In Act II he doesn’t know what he wants but stoically resists Dalila’s charms until he is consumed by lust. And in Act III he was clearly a broken man who is able to redeem himself in the end.
It is difficult to dwell at great length about what we heard because it was through cinema loudspeakers. Everything at this Everyman Cinema was of the highest standard and I felt I was seeing and hearing one of these Live in HD transmissions in the way in which I would hope everybody could yet know is not the case. Even then it is impossible to know what the singers achieved in the theatre without being there. For me Garanča was an outstanding Dalila and Act II the highlight it should be in this opera. Her subliminal love for Samson permeated ‘Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse’ (‘Love! come help my weakness’) and her duet with the High Priest even though she is determined to finish the job she must do. Samson’s admission of ‘Je t’aime!’ leads to Dalila’s famous aria ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘My heart opens to your voice’) that turns into a duet. Here her tone was luxuriant and sensual and the repetitions of ‘réponds à ma tendresse’ were transcendent and viscerally captivating.
Alagna was a forthright stentorian Samson from a rousing ‘Arrêtez, ô mes frères’ (‘Stop, O my brothers’) in Act I until his character attempted to bring the house down – but didn’t in this production – in the final act. (I wonder whether his music allows for any more subtlety than he brought to the role: after all Vickers wasn’t a very subtle Samson as I recall.) Alagna probably wasn’t in his best voice and expressed concern about allergies in his interview with the affable Susan Graham after the first act. He certainly improved as the opera went on and was deeply affecting in his Act III travails and ultimate salvation.
The High Priest is a thoroughly nasty piece of work and Laurent Naouri sounded just like that. It was not a winning performance for me and he did not always seem at ease with what he was singing. Much better were Elchin Azizov’s wonderfully dark Abimélech and Dmitry Belosselskiy’s concerned Old Hebrew. The stars of the night – Garanča notwithstanding – were the Met chorus and their contribution to the ensembles from the plaintive opening ‘Dieu d’Israël’ with its Nabucco-like collective suffering, to their equally fine singing as lamenting Israelites or orgiastic Philistines in Act III.
Sir Mark Elder was conducting only his second production of Samson et Dalila (the other was also at the Met) and drew a measured and refined account of Saint-Saëns score that brings together – though never coalesces – elements of Handel, early Verdi and Wagner, as well as, anticipating Richard Strauss. Elder says how the orchestra are remarkable for listening to singers and there is always the impression that they sometimes do little more that accompany the action rather than moving it forward. It all sounded mightily impressive nonetheless thanks – in part – to the pin-sharp Everyman Cinema audio.
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