J’Nai Bridges and Yonghoon Lee in a thrilling concert performance of Samson and Delilah in Seattle

United StatesUnited States Saint-Saëns, Samson and Delilah (concert version): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Seattle Opera / Ludovic Morlot (conductor). McCaw Hall, Seattle, 20.1.2023. (ZC)

Yonghoon Lee (Samson) and J’Nai Bridges (Delilah) © Sunny Martini

Concert staging:
Stage director – David Gately
Set designer – Rick Araluce
Lighting designer – Connie Yun
Chorus Master – Michaella Calzaretta

Delilah – J’Nai Bridges
Samson – Yonghoon Lee
High Priest of Dagon – Greer Grimsley
Abimelech – Andrew Potter
Philistine Messenger – John Marzano
First Philistine – James Galbraith
Second Philistine – Jonah spool
Old Hebrew – Daniel Sumegi

The last time Samson and Delilah was heard in Seattle, Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and Seattle was basking in the afterglow of hosting the World’s Fair two years prior, with its new Space Needle adding a distinctive touch to the cityscape. That 1965 run featured a husband-and-wife duo: James McCracken in the role of Samson and Sandra Warfield as the temptress Delilah, whose vindictive quest ultimately devastates Dagon’s temple. For more than half a century, this was the Seattle Opera’s sole production of the lurid work, until General Director Christina Scheppelmann revived Camille Saint-Saëns’s biblical epic as a concert performance for the 2022-2023 season.

Samson and Delilah has all the trappings of French grand opera: prominent choruses, elaborate ensembles and even ballets. The work is held back by a few inherent flaws: a lack of theatricality and occasional clumsiness in the narrative and libretto. All things considered; it is no surprise that the Seattle Opera opted for a concert version instead of putting on a fully-staged production.

Without the spectacle of the costumes, sets and props of a full production, the burden fell on the singers, chorus and orchestra to bring the opera to life with what stage director David Gately and conductor Ludovic Morlot wanted from them. Leading the singers was a trio of big voices, with mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, a rising star in the opera world, singing the role of Delilah. Bridges was making her Seattle Opera debut, but she is no stranger to the region: she hails from Lakewood, Washington – just south of Tacoma – and traveled far before coming home. Among other triumphs, Bridges has recently starred in productions with the Metropolitan Opera and LA Opera of the minimalist masterpiece Akhnaten by Philip Glass.

Bridges’s Delilah was a revelation. Her richly hued voice commanded the stage and captivated the audience. She conveyed all of Delilah’s contradictory emotions: sensuous, as when she sang ‘Printemps qui commence’ at the close of Act I, and treacherous, as she schemes and then seduces to learn the secret of Samson’s strength in Act II.

Her range of expression evidenced a familiarity with the role lacked by dramatic tenor Yonghoon Lee, who was singing Samson for the first time. Like Bridges, his career is burgeoning with engagements worldwide. Lee’s Samson was enormous, filling the hall with a bold palette of sound, and he was nearly perfect in the role of liberator. But when Samson had to be more subtle, Lee was less successful.

Rounding out the main cast, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, long a favorite with locals as Wotan in the city’s Ring Cycle, treated the audience with a return to the Emerald City as the High Priest of Dagon. Grimsley made for an unsettling, menacing religious figure. And audiences can look forward to a return of his booming presence later this year to reprise Wotan in the Seattle Opera’s new production of Das Rheingold – a must-see for any opera fan.

The orchestra, made up largely of Seattle Symphony musicians under the expert direction of Ludovic Morlot, their former conductor, was on stage just behind the singers. One of Morlot’s great strengths is his insistence on clarity from the orchestra. He expertly drew out the exoticism of Saint-Saëns, creating a vivid and dynamic soundscape that entranced the audience. The orchestra’s balance was impeccable, which allowed the singers to shine without distraction. Even in the final act, when the focus turns to the famous bacchanale, Morlot whipped up the needed wildness to convey the scene while keeping textures crystal clear. It was easy to remember a time when the Seattle Symphony, under the expert guidance of Morlot’s baton, had forged a distinct and visionary identity.

One final thought on this concert version of Samson and Delilah. The chorus, singing alternately as crowds of Hebrews and Philistines, is as much a part of the action as Samson, Delilah and the High Priest of Dagon. However, their placement at the back of McCaw Hall’s stage – buried behind the orchestra and soloists – muted their contribution and left the audience at times straining to hear them. When they could be heard, they sounded great: whether as a worn-down yet yearning Hebrew chorus or as vengeful and seemingly victorious Philistines who believe that have finally subdued Samson, their tormentor.

Overall, the concert was stunning and showcased the cast’s immense talent, including J’Nai Bridges’s captivating Delilah, Yonghoon Lee’s powerful Samson and Greer Grimsley’s menacing turn as the High Priest of Dagon. Despite the limitations of the stage, the performances were nothing short of exceptional.

It was a memorable night that left the audience eagerly anticipating the next production from the Seattle Opera.

Zach Carstensen

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