This was one of the performances that were long anticipated, – knowing that all the singers will have their role debuts and difficulty to source a ticket, the expectations were running high. Though living through the season and many outstanding performances the expected emotional impact was less than envisioned. The opera, which is based on biblical myth and composed by atheist Saint-Saëns, confronts Samson, impersonating strength, with his opposite High Priest who represents power, puts in the limelight feminine force – Dalila, who can achieve her goals by combining strength and power in a way only woman do, thus providing numerous options for exploration of human nature. In this particular case, I believe, the stage direction and focus on inter-personalization of the biblical drama did not let the premiere of “Samson et Dalila” in Vienna to become one of the season’s gems.
The production is staged by Alexandra Liedtke and her take of the myth is based on Saint-Saëns approach to limit biblical content in the opera thus focusing on the inner drama and interpersonal difficulties. The backdrop of the story is still rooted in the historical context: the war between Israelites and Philistines is ruthless, the power has to be continuously reconfirmed. Samson is the one chosen to serve the higher purpose, and he unquestionably leads his people to the future. Dalila is chosen as well, but not by God but its servant, the high priest and her strength lies in understanding and influencing people. They both are driven by faith, but their beliefs are very different. They both are extremely strong and – unbelievably lonely in their paths. The suffering torments, but love can destroy a trustful heart. The drama of love, hate and betrayal is on the stage here – minimalistic set designed by Raimund Orfeo Voigt with some noisily moving rotating room in Act 2, revealing a bathtub filled with water to be angrily splashed around, sudden disturbing rain-shower floods from the ceiling, and finale with a fashion runway which serves as a stage for tearing apart defeated Samson or his dancing “body-double” and frightening fireshow for the grand-finale.
There were also some interesting findings, especially in details, like ownership of the pendant symbolising power – from High priest, who gives it up upon defeat, to Samson, who lose it to Dalila upon his detriment. The ballet scene in Act 1 was well choreographed and well fitting to the story, while the final act ballet was a bit overdone.
The production direction and stage design do raise more questions than answers can be found during the performance. Probably it was the main reason for numerous boos from premiere audience addressed to the creative team.
Regardless of oddities and questionable storytelling, the singers delivered sublime performance on their respective role debuts.
Elīna Garanča was cool but irresistible nordic ice queen with a menacing glare of her intent, fully convincing the audience that her affair was more than a power play, so in this battle, she has lost a piece of her heart, too. Her choices are limited – she is committed to carry out the deed, and it is her only choice to gain power using her strength – seduction.
Her “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” was filled with sensuality and determination and certainly could enchant not only the lonely heart of Samson.
Elīna Garanča has admirable vocal strength and breath control, her top notes are brightly ringing and very secure, and even if I love her lower register, there is some barely noticeable shortage of depth in chest register that would make her even more convincing. Her delivery of the line uncovers a multitude of colours – it is always sung revealing the beauty of the musical material, and the premiere did not provide even the smallest hint that it has been a role debut for Elīna!
Roberto Alagna was in top form, roles of the heroic type he is currently singing – after Calaf and Otello, suit him perfectly well. My rediscovery of Alagna’s fearless delivery and full commitment to drama happened through La Juive in Munich two years ago, and it was strengthened this season with his convincing roles in the double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at The Met. Vocally impeccable, passionate, dramatically engaging and convincing performance regardless of directorial shortcomings. Admirable stage chemistry with Elīna, and very moving gesture of appreciation at the curtain call.
Impressive role debut, providing more space for future discoveries! Looking into Alagna’s calendar, there are several new surprises in the making – namely Lohengrin at Bayreueth this summer and Andrea Chenier next season.
Carlos Álvarez delivered threateningly dominant high priest of Dagon, his voice soaring above the orchestra and also painting a range of emotions from envy to jealousy. His character’s interaction with Dalila revealed certain hidden secrets. Imposing and solidly sung, but shadowed by the main protagonists.
The orchestra under Marco Armiliato was on fire, great reading and energy radiated from the pit, and the audience respectively cheered the conductor and the orchestra. The chorus was a great collective protagonist, delivering nuanced take of the score and supporting the cast.
Camille Saint-Saëns “Samson et Dalila”
CAST | 12.05.2018
Dalila Elīna Garanča
Samson Roberto Alagna
Oberpriester des Dagon Carlos Álvarez
Abimélech Sorin Coliban
CONDUCTOR Marco Armiliato
DIRECTOR Alexandra Liedtke
SET DESIGNER Raimund Orfeo Voigt
COSTUMES Su Bühler
CHOREOGRAPHY Lukas Gaudernak
LIGHTING Gerrit Jurda