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Samson et Dalila at Washington National Opera

Olga Borodina as Dalila (photo by Karin Cooper)

Olga Borodina as Dalila
(photo by Karin Cooper)
I hadn't really thought about this much, but Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) lived well into the 20th century (long enough, anyway, to be reportedly horrified by the premiere of The Rite of Spring). Furthermore, in the words of the New Grove, he was "a gifted, fluent, and prolific composer." One figure that might surprise you is that, besides Samson et Dalila (premiered in the Weimar Hoftheater—yes, Weimar, thanks to the influence of Franz Liszt—in 1877), Saint-Saëns completed and saw performed twelve other operas, the last four of them in the 20th century. Only Samson really gets performed anymore, and that is not all that common. As I wrote in my preview of the Washington National Opera's final production, ever since her Covent Garden premiere as Dalila, Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina has made quite a name for herself in this role. We were looking forward to this performance, and La Borodina did not disappoint.

In his review, Tim Page singled out the oratorio qualities of this opera. It is true that Saint-Saëns first conceived of Samson as an oratorio and that he apparently did not leave too many directions for staging the work. In general, even Saint-Saëns specialists agree that the composer, although prolific as an opera composer, did not have much theatrical sense. One would think that a modern director, realizing that state of affairs, would compensate. Peter McClintock's staging, however, gives us Saint-Saëns's opera at its most static, with the notable exception of Vladimir Angelov's suggestive and active choreography for the infamous Bacchanale in Act III, featuring solo dancer Fidel Garcia. (I give away my French-leaning biases, but why don't we have more ballet in our operas? It's such a natural fit.) Perhaps that blandness goes along with the set, which is the fairly pedestrian rehash of the WNO's 1998 performance of this opera. The final scene, in the Temple of Dagon, which earned some meager applause Tuesday night, impressed only when it fell apart at the opera's Biblical conclusion. The visual side of the production was all satisfactory—nothing was ugly—but nothing stood out as extraordinary either.

Other Articles:

'Samson' makes heroes of its leads (Washington Times, May 15)

Tim Page, Torpid 'Samson,' Finding Strength in Its Performances (Washington Post, May 16)
With eyes less distracted, ears could take in the excellent musical performances in this production. La Borodina was an evil, sultry, husky-toned temptress. She played and sang well in the first two acts, when the character puts on the persona of a wounded woman in love, to deceive Samson. However, she was at her finest in the third act when she lorded her victory over Samson, even mockingly repeating the pretty melody from their love duet, just to rub salt in Samson's wounds. (Who would have imagined that an opera singer could seem so at home as an evil siren with powerful men's balls in her crushing grip?) Borodina has such a beautiful low range, powerful but not with the forced quality of some mezzos. The role does not have all that much agile singing, favoring instead the long, slinky melodic line. (Borodina has that agility in spades, by the way, judging from the way she sings Rossini on her Arias CD.) She was thrilling to see and hear from start to finish.

Samson et Dalila, Washington National Opera, May 17, 2005The men around her were all quite strong, especially young bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, who was an imposing presence in Act I. Baritone Alan Held was a rumbling and oily High Priest of Dagon, who played up the incestuous relationship between himself and his daughter, Dalila. Held peaked out just under the top note or two of the part, but overall sang powerfully. Bass Gregory Reinhart, in his WNO debut, stole the show from the other men with his strong profondo notes as the Old Hebrew, garnering the strongest male ovation at the curtain call. Local tenor Carl Tanner has a strong, if somewhat dark voice, and he performed well as Samson, although on Tuesday night it seemed that his voice was somewhat covered. As he limped away from the curtain call, it appeared that he had hurt his foot during the opera's tumultuous final scene. (He did appear to trip as he broke his chains and brought down the temple's pillars.)

Conductor Giovanni Reggioli was the head coach and music administrator for the WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program from 2001 to 2004. Apparently recovered from the illness that left him suddenly indisposed at the premiere Saturday night, because of which Plácido Domingo stepped in at 10 minutes' notice, he led a color-filled performance of the orchestral score. This is a beautiful opera with sometimes odd scoring, not the least of which is Saint-Saëns's preference for thin textures, to the point of transparency. Some points in the opera are on the unsatisfactory side of orchestral fullness for that reason, like the concluding cataclysm. Saint-Saëns favored odd combinations of winds in repeating arpeggiated patterns, a sound that inevitably reminds me of Philip Glass now. An extended passage for glockenspiel in the Act III temple scene begins to wear on the senses, although the instrument was so present Tuesday night that it seemed amplified. It would be nice to avoid the long set change necessary between the first and second scenes in Act III, during which the house remained dark and mechanical whirrings and whinings were heard in the gloom. I would not see anything wrong with Reggioli or someone else writing or arranging a few minutes of extra music to cover that change. Perhaps the two harpists (who were excellent) could play an excerpt of the Saint-Saëns op. 154, Morceau de concert for Harp and Orchestra, arranged for two harps. Anything but the noises of machinery!

Additional Comments by Jens F. Laurson:

When Tim Page likened Samson et Dalila to a staged oratorio, he had a good point. Rather than tightly woven action, the opera consists of a series of statements, and combined with the static stage direction (Peter McClintock) it just never becomes very involving visually. The attractive fugue of the chorus at the beginning of Act I has Bach luring at every corner and contributes to the ‘oratorio’ feeling.

Dressed in an expectedly conservative production (Giancarlo del Monaco), the opera had a few very impressive moments, and its good share of unimaginative ones. Costumes (Michael Scott, also responsible for the set) were ravishing on Kyle Ketelsen’s Abimélech and pleasant on Olga Borodina’s sensual, Salome-like Dalila. Mostly though, they were 50s Hollywood recreations of our ideas of how dress in the region, at the time, must have looked. Clichéd and sometimes ridiculous like the guards that, due to varying height, made their uniform frocks look like anything from modest 2/3-long dresses to miniskirts, leaving them to look like ancient Rehoboth beach guards in Birkenstocks.

The message of the opera’s story is a mix of xenophobia (“stay away from her, she’s not one of us [hence evil!]”) to the kind of glorification of weakness (“all we have are tears”) that sent Nietzsche into fits. Standards in 1877 also still required ballets in operas; Saint-Saëns delivers two.

Gregory Reinhart, in the role of the anti-sensual, xenophobic, cantankerous Old Hebrew, was a real find, with a magnificent voice with a nice ring throughout the entire register. Alan Held had been my favorite element in Die Walküre, where he was a great Wotan. As the High Priest of Dagon, I found the elements that reminded me why he had impressed me without delivering quite as much. His pronunciation was notably weak, even to my ears (his German had been near-impeccable), and his voice was strong and big, but not always perfectly aimed at the notes, with a smudgy quality. Dalila, the Mata Hari of Mesopotamia via Olga Borodina, the star of the production, was a sultry, pouting, stubbornly determined daughter to Held’s priest (the production, laudably, worked out some incestuous overtones in their relationship), making her father proud by seducing for the good of the state. Local Carl Tanner made a capable contribution to the cast: only in the second act did I find his voice oddly covered by a milky hue.

A feast for the eyes, despite my mentioned reservations, was the third act with its ritual ballet (a few audience members laughed during parts of Vladimir Angelov’s choreography), making it an opera perfectly fit for those who like visual feasts and, I figure, children... even if summarizing the story for your five-year-old might give you occasional pause in trying to find a version ad usum Delphini.

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