Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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November 22, 2016

Camille Saint-Saëns biblical opera Samson et Dalila was once a staple of the repertory, if not quite in the same league as Aida or La bohème, but in recent times it has appeared less and less frequently in opera houses, in spite of having one of the most familiar of opera arias, "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix," and the Bacchanal in the last act.  The work is part oratorio, part grand opera complete with ballets, part lyric opera replete with the nineteenth century French fondness for exoticism, which in our time often translates as embarrassing hootchy-kootch.  I had not seen it in years and was curious to see how it would stand up, so we made a detour in our current trip in Italy to Turin--Risorgimento capital, home of grissini (bread sticks) and white truffles, a beautiful city center of porticoed walks--and the Teatro Regio, still one of the finest modern opera houses anywhere, looking as pristine as it did when it first opened in 1973.


The Regio is one of Italy's best run opera companies, and this time it has innovated by sharing this production of Samson and Delilah with the China National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.  The lavish production by Hugo de Ana, who was responsible for the direction,  sets and costumes, reflects the joint use.  De Ana favors large, bulky, geometric shapes in his sets, and this opera is no exception.  In recent years, he also likes to use projections, and the entire opera was played behind a scrim upon which there were projections of many kinds.  The set suggested ancient buildings, or maybe something out of Star Wars; the entire production had a sort of back to the future look.  As the opera opens, we see the Hebrew people enslaved in Gaza, dressed in dun sackcloth, arrayed on a long staircase against the back wall: in dim light, through the scrim it looked like an ancient bas relief.  Samson arrived, long dreadlocks intact, to give them hope, but soon the Philistines appeared in the most colorful, spectacular costumes with a vaguely Chinese look, but also futuristic, with helmets that resembled bicycle helmets, and carrying long, shining spears.  Later the spears would become light sabres, like the ones children play with in the post-Star Wars generations.  Vivid lighting by Vinicio Cheli helped with the effects.


Video projections ranged from streaks of light to lightening flashes to naked bodies in various sexual poses.  Delilah appeared wearing yellow Chinese pants and a gown-robe affair and looking seductive.  Interestingly, in Act II, when she seduces Samson, she was clad in what looked like a yoga outfit--simple blue pants and top, and barefoot.  It was oddly seductive in the midst of the wildly colored costumes of the Philistines.  The finale, when Samson brings the temple of Dagon down, was effective, as lightening flashed, gongs bonged, the set broke apart and stuff fell from the flies. 

There were lots of dances, including the famous Bacchanal, and lots of dancers clad in skin tight leotards, the men with prosthetic genitalia bouncing around as they danced.  Meanwhile there were projections on the scrim of nude men and women.  The dancers got enthusiastic applause.


The Regio cast the two main roles with alternates, and we got the "B" cast (the first cast included Daniela Barcelona and Gregory Kunde): Nadia Krasteva and Kristian Benedikt.  Mr. Benedikt is a stentorian, barrel-chested tenor who has sung a real variety of roles from Edgardo in Lucia to Verdi's Otello, but curiously not Wagner, as his sound, to me, was very Wagnerian.  Mostly, he was an effective Samson, but he had trouble singing softly, which is required in his iterations of "Dalila" during her great seduction aria.  He is also a stolid actor.  Ms. Krasteva, who hails from Bulgaria, was a very good actress, on the other hand, especially in "her" second act.  Somehow she managed to avoid kitsch and vamping in the seduction scene, and made it look quite natural, and her pacing back and forth as Samson is torn between his fidelity to God and his yearning for her was electric.  Her voice is deep and smoky and tends to the lower ends of the mezzo range, but she also had high notes aplenty.  I was actually glad I heard her instead of Ms. Barcelona since I am fairly familiar with Barcelona's work.  Claudio Sgura was a superb High Priest of Dagon--a powerful, deep voice with reservoirs of strength.  Bare-chested, he acted well too in his duet with Dalila.


Pinchas Steinberg led the orchestra.  I felt that Dalila's "Printemps que commence" was a little slow, and the Bacchanal was a little less frenzied and driven than it could be, but maybe that was the geometric patterns of the dancers (Leda Lojodice was choreographer).  This is a very choral opera, especially in the first act, and the chorus was as splendid in its quiet, lamenting moments as in its outbursts.

Peggy and I both enjoyed the production, the familiar story, and the singing.  Samson et Dalila is an uneven opera, to be sure, but it is certainly worth reviving.

Photographs of "A" cast courtesy of Teatro Regio.

Charles Jernigan
Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network