San Diego, CA---The San Diego Opera Company has brought back (by popular demand) Camille Saint-Saëns’ beautiful Samson et Dalila. The last time we were treated to this 19-century French opera was in 2007. No question this biblical tale is of Biblical proportions. The sets, rented from the San Francisco Opera, (Douglas Schmidt) are gigantic and eye popping especially in Act III.
The interior of the Temple of Dagon is huge. It is here that the god’s rule over the Bacchanal and where Samson is chained, at the end of Act III, to the two oversized pillars or columns that become symbolic of the story. Most of the costumes for the Philistines are covered with jewels and are a colorful blending of fabrics. The Hebrew’s for the most part are wrapped in prayer shawls and wearing black especially in the opening number. Samson’s costume needs a bit of a makeover. It’s drab and awkward looking. (Carrie Robbins)
American tenor Clifton Forbis is Samson (his beautiful tenor voice, sounded very cantoral especially in Act II). This is the same role he took in 2007 and is just as effective. His Delilah, in this production is Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva. Standing head and shoulders above the rest, her looks are sensual and alluring (her costumes are flowing and enticing) with strong and commanding voice matching her looks.
The good news is that for this Sunday school teacher of many moons ago, the story of Samson and Delilah was a terrific spellbinder and great lesson. The motivations are as old as well, Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit.
Outside the Philistine temple of Dagon a large chorus of Hebrews is begging The God of Israel to release them from bondage with the melancholy “Dieu, d’Israël” (sung impressively by San Diego Opera Chorus under the direction of Charles F. Prestinari) that leads into a fugue (‘Nous avons vu nos cités renvresées’) setting the tone for Samson’s emergence. Hebrew warrior Samson, famous for his heroic deeds and his superhuman strength enters and tries restoring their faith in their God by offering the rousing aria (Aarëtez, ô mes frères).
Philistine governor Abimelech, (Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov) taunts the Hebrews and provokes Samson into a knife/sword wielding fight where the good governor winds up on the wrong side of the altercation. The Philistines, in wake of revenge, set Delilah out to capture the heart of Samson whom she knows is smitten with her. But… before Delilah lets Samson get too far with her, she taunts, charms and seduces him into telling her the secret of his superhuman strength.
The secret of Samson’s extraordinary powers (to be used against the Philistines) was made at this birth. In a covenant with God, Samson was to serve his God and protect the Israelites. He was never to cut his hair and never consume alcohol. His conquests were readily known and while he kept his promises he didn’t take them very seriously. But… when Samson let the flesh get in the way of the secret of his strength, it was the beginning of his downfall and eventual death.
No question San Diego Opera’s seldom-produced opera does have its stirring moments especially when Ms. Krasteva is on stage looking regal, acting seductive and sounding in complete control. Her rich and powerful mezzo-soprano voice is stunning and her delivery easy and natural. When she sings her seduction aria in Act II, “Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”, it goes right to the bone and resonates throughout. That was the case the night I attended the performance.
Other standout voices include American bass Gregory Reinhart, as the Old Hebrew who warns Samson to ‘be careful’ of the seductress Delilah. His voice is rich and passionate and his pleas compelling. Persian-American baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi’s High Priest of Dagon is especially impressive as he mocks Samson during the The Bacchanal, at the end of the opera.
Choreographed for dancers the Bacchanal is the most sumptuous and opulent part of the evening with flowing veils and scant costume. It is stunning and provocative to watch especially in Act III as the opera winds down and Samson is being paraded before the crowds in a humiliating display of evil revenge. (Kenneth von Heidecke choreographed)
Overall though, librettist Ferdinand Lemaire doesn’t have a whole of story to work with. The actual biblical account in the opera, taken from the Book of Judges, is limited just to the seduction and destruction of Samson. With only so many ways for her to ensnare her prey, the narrative lags. For three hours (with two 25-minute intermissions) his conquest by Delilah, is the focal point of the opera.
After some time and with plenty of stops and starts, Samson reveals his secret to Delilah. Without waiting for another moment to pass, she cuts off a lock of his hair in act of defiance. His lost his strength it is almost anti climactic, it happens so fast. It might have been a little more dramatic if we could have seen more of the actual snipping. Instead we were privy to watching the Philistines take red-hot pokers and blind Samson.
French opera’s are a rarity so when one is offered it behooves us to see it. The voices, the sets and the dancing are worth the price of admission and you won’t want to miss the opportunity to see and hear Ms. Krasteva, or for that matter, the rich French tones coming from the pit under the baton of Karen Keltner.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Feb. 22 and 24
Organization: San Diego Opera
Production Type: Opera
Where: Civic Theatre, 3rd and B San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: Starting at $45.00
Venue: Civic Theatre