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A fine Samson and Delilah

03 July 2015

Roderic Dunnett on a Saint-Saëns revival

© robert workman

Treachery: Carl Tanner as Samson and Sara Fulgoni as Delilah in Grange Park Opera's Samson and Delilah

Treachery: Carl Tanner as Samson and Sara Fulgoni as Delilah in Grange Park Opera's Samson and Delilah

NEEDLESS to say, it is the final scene that steals the thunder in Camille Saint-Saëns' opera Samson and Delilah, which received its first performance at Liszt's court theatre in Weimar in December 1877.

Samson's amassing his strength and hauling down the roof of the temple of Dagon, the Philistines' "fish-god", supplies the inevitable climax. The collapse of walls, pillars, and idols in Grange Park Opera's appetising new production of this too rarely seen opera looked as graphic and fearsome as illustrations of early productions, notably Paris Opera in 1892: indeed, it required great precision and skill in the designer, Francis O'Connor, to ensure that the set was light enough in weight to cascade safely down on the smugly carousing worshippers of Dagon below.

This opera, based on Judges 16, is a musical triumph - as much for the composer as for Grange Park, a defunct country estate near Winchester, which has retrieved some remarkable underperformed repertoire, such as Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress and Cavalli's Eliogabalo.

Saint-Saëns, who lived to be 86, composed a dozen operas, of which Samson and Delilah was only the second. Already he shows himself magnificently attuned to the genre: even when he relies on traditional formats - chorus fugues remind us he first conceived this as an oratorio - he pens music that is passionate, clever, vigorous, and often meltingly beautiful and moving.

These dramatic mood swings are captured by conductor Gianluca Marciano, who has the full measure of this beguiling and dramatic French score, and who directs a first-class ensemble of players such as Grange Park has built up since its launch 18 seasons ago.

Much of the story Saint-Saëns' eager librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire, centres on three or four scenarios: Samson hailed in triumph; Samson's relationship to the appalling Delilah (Dalila); Samson struggling with conscience; and the blind Samson mocked in captivity, before magnificently turning the tables.

The leads excelled: the American Carl Tanner as the tenor lead produced what was surely world-class delivery, and the British mezzo-soprano Sara Fulgoni gave us sensationally alluring singing. The fine support singers are Michel de Souza, the manipulative Priest of Dagon, who presides urbanely over the doomed banquet, Greek Christophoros Stamboglis, who sings a wise old Hebrew, and Nicholas Folwell as a Philistine official who soon meets a grisly end.

In the early stages, a great deal, solos or chorus, is - perhaps need to be - pretty static. There was little by way of invention, or interaction, Yet there is a defence: much of Samson's, and Delilah's, role is declamation. To add diversions might have been an untimely disruption.

But Patrick Mason's direction easily scores in Act 3, where an update to some kind of modern fascist state with its own insignia proves far from corny: the multicolour ball gowns of the ladies and posh attire of Dagon's male aficionados all helped the dramatic build-up, as Tanner's Samson is cruelly tripped and buffeted, defended only by a small boy (Carter Jeffries) whose precise attentions easily deserved him his front place during the final bow.

Delilah's entry and the singing of her maidens of the female chorus constitutes one of the most blissful moments: shades here surely, of Berlioz, just as Samson's outpourings show Saint-Saëns' deep admiration for middle-period Wagner. Is it irony that the most lulling music is given to an evasive spouse who is treacherous from the outset?

Samson's music is conceived on a very large scale. Tanner's achievement in this exhausting role is that, even when barking full pelt, calling aloud upon God, or resisting Delilah's malicious pleas to reveal his secret, he, looking like something out of Braveheart, brings a touching warmth to his whole performance. The sound is aching and beautiful at the same time. It anticipates perfectly the Judge's modesty at his personal failure, as the Hebrews cry out "Samson, what of your people", and his determined but inevitable self-immolation.


Travel directions for visiting Grange Park, Northington, in Hampshire, are given on the website below. Further performances are tomorrow and on 9 and 16 July. Box Office: 01962 737373. Dining: 01962 737367. www.grangeparkopera.co.uk

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