Composer: Camille Saint-Saëns
Librettist: Ferdinand Lemaire
Conductor: Sir Mark Elder
Producer/Director: Darko Tresnjak
Samson: Roberto Alagna
Dalila: Elina Garanca
The High Priest of Dagon: Laurent Naouri
Some opera memories are of course more vivid than others, and one of my best times at the Met is still the incandescent pairing of French tenor Roberto Alagna and Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca in Carmen, back in 2009. Therefore, I was understandably very eager to repeat the experience this season with Camille Saint- Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, and to add another opera under my belt at the same time.
A certified child prodigy who became a prodigious pianist and organist, as well as a staunch supporter of young artists, the French composer was not known for dwelling on emotions too much. A born perfectionist, he unquestionably mastered his craft but did not carry his heart on his sleeve, which makes his foray into opera, an art essentially made of larger-than-life emotions, all the more interesting. Samson et Dalila, which deals with big time religion, politics and sentiments, seems like an odd choice for him, but then again, you don’t know until you try it.
So that's what I did last Tuesday night at the Met, on an unseasonably warn evening, in a not quite full house.
Among all the biblical stories, Saint-Saëns had picked the haircut that resounded around the world – or at least would eventually bring down the Philistines’ temple – to originally make an oratorio out of it, until his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire persuaded him to turn it into an opera that is. And since this was happening in end-of-the-century France, the end product came out as a grand opera that featured two extended dance sequences, a decadent bacchanal and a sure-fire hit for mezzo-sopranos.
This fall the mezzo-soprano in charge is Elina Garanca, whose singing is as well-known for its surgical precision as for its underlying coolness. However, she did not let this aura of mystery of hers make her Dalila indifferent, just naturally poised and undoubtedly conniving. And if it was not always easy to figure out what her true feelings toward Samson were, she still sang the hell out of the seduction scene in Act II, including the much celebrated “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix”. And all our hearts, including Samson's, did in fact open to her voice. Incidentally, she also has to be given credit for looking impossibly glamorous in the gaudiest outfits.
The yang to her yin was tenor Roberto Alagna, who never stopped singing his heart out, whether he was trying to raise his fellow Hebrews’ spirits or to resist Dalila’s compelling charms. Alagna always seems most comfortable with hot-blooded characters that are going through vertiginous highs and bottomless lows, and on Tuesday night, his Samson, whether the fearless leader, the hopeless lover or the remorseful traitor, was dramatically and vocally intense.
The third wheel, which turned out to be one of the true stars of the evening, was French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri who gave an imperturbably commanding performance in the smaller role of the High Priest of Dagon. His scene with Dalila in Act II, in particular, as they are plotting Samson’s demise, was a real treat.
Unsurprisingly, another shining star was the Met’s chorus, who brought their superior skills flawlessly together to create wonderfully nuanced crowd scenes, especially making Act I come alive with gripping fervor and Act III explode with orgiastic decadence.
Although Samson et Dalila can be a frustratingly static opera to begin with, a setting in biblical times – Gaza in 1150 BCE, to be precise – still has the potential to set imaginative minds on fire. But, beside a few flashes of creativity, that was not much the case for this production. The costumes, for example, were downright predictable, such as drab-looking rags for the enslaved Hebrews as opposed to glitzy get-ups and half-naked bodies for the Philistines. At least the two teams were easy to tell apart.
Truth be told, some ideas had their merit, such as leaving the Islamic art-patterned, metal-looking curtain down for a few minutes into the opera smartly concretized the confinement of the Hebrews, who then appeared at the bottom of the stage while the Philistines looked down at them from above. On the other hand, at some point, the young guy behind me was wondering aloud where Dalila’s “spaceship dungeon” of a home was supposed to be located, and I had no answer. In Act III, in a sharp study of contrast, the much-awaited bacchanal was vividly colorful and tremendously agitated while the collapse of the pagan temple was cleverly symbolized.
Saint-Saëns’ score is rigorously structured and dutifully runs the gamut from crass to romantic to spiritual, strongly establishing the laudable piety of the Hebrews and the shameless debauchery of the Philistines. Even in the most forceful moments, the orchestra never covered the singers, all the better to hear the carefully crafted parts they had been assigned. As conducted by the estimable Sir Mark Elder, the flamboyant kitsch was all on the stage and the understated efficiency was all in the pit. And that worked out.