OPERA NEWS - Samson et Dalila
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Samson et Dalila

Paris Opera

In Review Paris Samson hdl 117
Silins, Rachvelishvili, dancers and chorus in Michieletto’s Paris Opera Samson staging
© Vincent Pontet/Opéra National de Paris

IT HAS BEEN A QUARTER of a century since the Paris Opera last programmed Samson et Dalila, so the new production of the Saint-Saëns, directed by Damiano Michieletto and conducted by company music director Philippe Jordan, was keenly anticipated. Jordan is passionate in his commitment to reevaluating this “Orientalist” warhorse of the French Romantic repertoire. His analytical reading brought impressionistic orchestral detail to the opera, which is too often played with generalized Wagnerian brushstrokes. The fire and brimstone of the score were sometimes absent, but rarely has the work been played with such orchestral polish.On October 13, all praise was due to the outstanding chorus, trained by José Luis Basso in their important oratorio-style pleadings; the gently breathed Act I entry on the word “Dieu” had spine-tingling intensity.

Michieletto added elements to the stage action for which there was no musical or textual support. Dalila’s boxy, art deco-style apartment, which separated her from the lamenting Israelites, had the look of a luxury-hotel bedroom. Confusion began when Samson, torn between war and love, decided to donate his magical hair to Dalila as proof of his amorous commitment, chopping off his own ponytail with impassioned intensity. This robbed Dalila of her scissor act—and her role as the bad girl of opera. Despite her initial triumph, Dalila regretted her betrayal and had a last-act moment of redemption: it was not Samson’s regained strength that brought down the temple but Dalila, who sprinkled the stage with petrol, causing the final conflagration. There was spectacular lighting from Alessandro Carletti, but there was no music from the composer to explain Dalila’s newfound pyromaniac tendencies—and, more important, no divine intervention. Michieletto allowed the bacchanal to retain a tongue-in-cheek toga-and-sandals charm, but it was too late to rescue the evening from its spiritual vacuity. The subtlety Jordan found in the score did not warrant this contortion of the libretto. 

Fortunately, the evening was saved by great singing from Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Samson. Rachvelishvili has an exceptional mezzo-soprano of seamless quality; despite a series of unflattering costumes, her Dalila was sensual and authoritative. Her pungent, secure voice was thrilling when firing on all cylinders, but her delicate soft singing needed a keener legato to project into the unfriendly acoustic of the Bastille. There was no such problem for Antonenko, who tore into Samson’s music with a genuine heroic tenor, sounding stentorian in Act I but finding a new intensity and tonal refinement for Act III. The tenor worked harder on his French than did his Latvian compatriot, bass-baritone Egils Silins, who made a rough-voiced villain as the High Priest of Dagon. For those eager to understand the French text, it was a pleasure to hear the perfect diction of cavernous basses Nicolas Cavallier, as the old Hebrew, and Nicolas Testé, as a forceful Abimélech. —Stephen J. Mudge

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