THE Royal Opera’s previous (and first) production of Samson et Dalila, by Elijah Moshinsky, was last revived nearly 20 years ago (Arts, 2 April 2004). The casts over the years since it was first staged in 1981 included Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo, Shirley Verrett, and Agnes Baltsa; the set designs by Sidney Nolan featured magnificent drop curtains. Hyemi Shin’s sets for the new production by Richard Jones which opened on 26 May were not of comparable splendour, but Seok Jong Baek and Elina Garanca in the title roles were terrific, almost on a par with the standard of their predecessors.
The second of Saint-Saëns’s 12 operas, Samson et Dalila is the only one to have secured a place in the repertory. Conceived as an oratorio, composed over a ten-year period, it reached the stage only through the enthusiasm of Franz Liszt. The first performance, presumably in German, took place in Weimar in 1877, and it wasn’t till 1890 that the opera was seen in Paris.
Jones’s staging is spectacular. The movable sets include a large box containing steps, dragged on to the stage by Samson in Act 1, and wooden slats and a bench for Act 2. The statue of Dagon is a grotesque head with a Mickey Mouse nose. The Philistine thugs are dressed by Nicky Gillibrand in cavalry-stripe trousers and Guantanamo-orange tops, while the Hebrew men sport pork-pie hats. Delilah appears in a floral, ankle-length skirt; for the Philistines’ celebration in the last act she wears an exotic head-dress.
There is much violence: when Samson kills Abimelech, the satrap of Gaza, the dying man’s groans continue into the next scene; the blinded, shorn Samson is viciously beaten up. Lucy Burge’s choreography has the Philistines jiving away in the Bacchanale; how effective it is when they freeze as Samson prays aloud. No millstone is visible for the stricken man’s grinding, and there are no pillars for him to grasp at the end.
The composer tips his hat in several directions. The opening chorus of Hebrews leads to a fugue, a reminder of the work’s conception as an oratorio. The Spring Chorus for the Philistine women could be by Gounod, and the storm in Act 2 conjures up the Wagner of Die Walküre, while the duet for Delilah and the High Priest put me in mind of the Macbeths in Verdi’s opera. But the opera hangs together wonderfully as a whole.
The Korean tenor Seok Jong Baek, replacing (not at short notice) an injured Nicky Spence, was a tireless Samson. His exhortation to the depressed Hebrews was thrilling, the transition from resistance to surrender all too convincing, his remorse — the turning of the millstone graphically conveyed by the orchestra — pitiful to behold.
The Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca sang “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” — “Softly awakes my heart” — so sensuously that it was hard to believe it insincere. Indeed, her body language as she witnessed Samson’s torture from the side of the stage suggested that she was distressed. But when in patriotic or vengeful mode she was fearsome, a fine match for the implacable High Priest of Lukasz Golinski. The Old Hebrew — called Samson’s Rabbi in this production — was sonorously sung by Goderdzi Janelidze, as was the hapless Abimelech of Blaise Malaba.
The chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding) sang their hearts out. My own heart sank when their opening phrases came uncanonically from offstage, but their entrance soon followed. In the pit, the orchestra was in mid-season form. From the way the cellos and basses dug into their bottom notes at the beginning of each bar in the introduction, one felt that all would be well. Sir Antonio Pappano conducted with fire — and with delicacy, too, shaping the phrases magically and eliciting some wonderful pianissimos. Though not as memorable as the old production, which is available on DVD, this is worth seeing.
Further performances: 3, 7, 10, 13, 16 June at 7.30 p.m.; 19 June at 3.30 p.m. Box office: roh.org.uk; phone 020 7304 4000.