OPERA NEWS - Samson et Dalila
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Samson et Dalila

Grange Park Opera

Grange Park opened its new production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, a staple of the nineteenth century French repertoire, on June 20. It is a work that started out — at least in the composer’s initial imaginings — as an oratorio, and something of those origins lingers in the final version, even if it is possible to disguise them. Irish director Patrick Mason certainly managed to do so in his staging, designed by Francis O’Connor, which moved the work’s action outside its Biblical context and into the period of the Second World War and the Vichy government in France. 

Reviled following the war, when many of its leaders were executed, the Vichy regime had collaborated with the Nazis in rounding-up and deporting French Jews to the East and the death camps. If Mason’s transposition could be thought extreme, it is worth pointing out that in Ferdinand Lemaire’s libretto the High Priest of Dagon quite specifically expresses a desire to utterly wipe out the children of Israel.

Symbols of the Vichy government were most apparent in the opera’s final scene, set not in the temple of Dagon but at a preview of the new film Bacchanale, starring Dalila — here a French film actress — and whose poster featured a flaming Star of David. In Mason’s realization, the sophisticated audience was at first amused and later repelled by the contents of the film, which coopted the opera’s most famous ballet sequence for its score; at Grange Park the real audience watched the reactions of the stage audience rather than the film itself.

Right at the end of the opera, the blinded Samson brought the building crashing down in what was — for a small festival — a spectacular visualization of large-scale physical collapse, initiated by the Biblical hero in the manner of a modern suicide bomber. Despite any objections that might be raised as to its fidelity to the text, Grange Park’s production could be adjudged a general success, as much for its musical values as for its controversial but ultimately convincing dramatic approach. 

Carl Tanner flooded the role of Samson with his thrilling dramatic tenor, every note a rallying cry or one of searing lamentation; there are few artists around today who could make such a solidly effective impact in the role. He was partnered as Dalila by mezzo Sara Fulgoni — arguably a shade vocally mature for the role, but still sounding its notes with confidence, warmth and a genuinely seductive quality. Nicholas Folwell made a fearsome Abimélech and Michel de Souza a vicious High Priest of Dagon. Though Christophoros Stamboglis suffered from dubious intonation, he was in other respects an impressively authoritative Old Hebrew. 

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra — one of two ensembles the festival has employed this season, along with the BBC Concert Orchestra, which played for Fiddler on the Roof — gave an admirable account of the subtle and colorful orchestral score, though conductor Gianluca Marciano could have energized it more consistently. —George Hall

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