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In Review > North America

Samson et Dalila

NEW YORK CITY
The Metropolitan Opera
9/24/18

In Review Met Samson hdl 1218
Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča, Samson and Dalila at the Met
© Johan Elbers

THE METROPOLITAN OPERA opened the 2018–19 season on September 24 with a new staging of Camille Saint-Saëns’s chef d’oeuvre, Samson et Dalila, a work that has visited the company’s repertory, albeit infrequently, since 1895. Originally conceived as an oratorio, Samson et Dalila shrewdly wraps a simple story in a lush, romantic score, deftly sparked with touches of exotic atmosphere. But staging Samson et Dalila can pose problems. Although the vocal music is undeniably magnificent—notably Samson’s heroic “Prends ma vie en sacrifice,” Dalila’s three beautiful arias and the nonpareil choral sections—the libretto’s ample opportunities for Old Testament-style spectacle often tip productions over into kitsch. The arc of dramatic action is tricky to navigate: Samson and Dalila are at their most convincingly passionate when singing solo, rather than together, and the most exciting duet in the opera is the Act II confrontation between Dalila and the High Priest of Dagon, an exhilarating interlude of two unapologetic villains in full scheming mode. The Met’s new Samson exposed all of the opera’s problems without solving any of them.

Darko Tresnjak’s disappointing production was the Met debut for the Tony-winning stage director, one of the American theater’s most versatile and valuable artists. The stage action was generally static and unmusical, save for the vigorous machinations in the Act III bacchanale, choreographed by Austin McCormick as a Broadway Bares-style showstopper. Act I’s big moments—the murder of Abimélech, the entrance of Dalila—were clumsily staged, and the long Act II sequence in Dalila’s lair (designed by Trejnak’s frequent collaborator Alexander Dodge as a duplex) lacked any dramatic tension. Linda Cho’s costumes for Dalila were not particularly alluring, save for the vast cape that trailed after her Act I exit. 

Each of the Met’s three distinguished Samson et Dalila principals has done first-rate work for the company in the past, but on this occasion all left equivocal impressions, paced broadly and slowly by conductor Mark Elder. Elīna Garanča has all the beauty, intelligence and charisma that one could ask for in a Dalila, but the contralto-ish range of the Philistine femme fatale is too low for the bright glamour of Garanča's mezzo-soprano. One admired Garanča's vibrant acting—the slow, crafty turn of Dalila’s head toward Samson was a flash of unabashed evil, as if Dalila had just scented her victim’s weakness—but she sounded too lean in the voluptuous effusions of “Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse” and was infirm of purpose in the Act I trio, “Je viens célébrer la victoire.” Laurent Naouri, as always a persuasive actor, offered pellucid diction and imaginative prosody as the High Priest but lacked the firm, quick-firing power needed for the repeating exhortations of “Gloire à Dagon” in the finale of Act III.

Roberto Alagna was a Samson of shining, eager energy: the veteran tenor’s expertise in French music is an abiding pleasure, and at fifty-five, Alagna’s generosity to his colleagues and to his audience remains formidable. That said, Alagna was not in his best current voice on opening night; he frequently scooped up to notes in Acts I and II, with several phrase endings landing flat. Although no indisposition was announced, Alagna sounded tired and uncharacteristically patchy by the start of Act III, and he ended with an audible crack on Samson’s final B-flat. In the small but important role of the Old Hebrew, Dmitry Belosselskiy contributed impressive dignity and weighty bass tone. The true vocal star of the performance was the magnificent Met chorus, prepared by Donald Palumbo, although their participation in the stage action was generally limited to old-fashioned stand-and-sing blocking. —F. Paul Driscoll



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