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A CurtainUp Review

The Metropolitan Opera's New Production of Samson et Dalila>
By Estelle Gilson

Classic operas become classics when they prove they can survive the ravages of time, poor casting and inane staging, costumes and lighting. The lesson that teaches us is that great composers are giants, and that production designers, stage directors, and costume designers, sumo-size as their egos may be, are mere pygmies on the cultural scene.

That said, let me say too, that I enjoyed the Metropolitan opera's newest production of Samson et Dalila and that I would recommend it to anyone to wants to hear voluptuously, sinuously, passionate music, as only the French can write it, wonderfully sung and performed by an excellent cast led by Placido Domingo (Samson) Denyce Graves (Dalila) and Serge Leiferkus (the High Priest) and conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

However, this particular staging of the work had me wondering what a Metropolitan opera production conference might be like. What happened when Zimbabwe born set and costume designer, Richard Hudson, of Broadway's The Lion King (see link at end of review) fame, declared that
  • the Philistines (who Saint SaŽns naively thought lived in Gaza) would all be naked, spear carrying black warriors with white hands painted on their bodies
  • the Philistine priests would have orange and white faces and wear tiger skins
  • the Hebrew men, though living in the same climate, would be wrapped in long black garments and prayer shawls, looking as if they just stepped out of a Williamsburg shtebl (prayer house) on cold winter's night.
And what happened when Hudson presented his sketch for the setting of Act II -- supposed to take place in Dalila's tent, where after promising the High Priest to discover the source of Samson's strength, she will seduce the love-stricken hero. Intimate? feminine?

The setting is a barren space except for three truncated round orange structures -- sort of popsicles with protruding rods that look as if they were left over from an American Gladiators set . In this totally empty space Dalila was called upon to express fury, frustration, despair, love, passion and desire by various types of collapses onto the bare, raked stage. The opera's most famous and seductive music Mon coeur s'ouvre ŗ ta voix was sung with both principals on the floor, Graves, leaning on an elbow. Between verses she does get to twist one leg around Domingo's.

To get back to my question - what happened? The answer of course, is nothing. It's a free country and one can't argue with the creative mind.

Hudson has generally worked in subsidized European theaters which are not directly accountable to the paying audiences, and can risk experiments. Sometimes they produce outrageously glorious triumphs, sometimes major disasters. In an Opera News interview, when Hudson was questioned about the boos rained upon operas he designed for London and Venice, he replied, "People are entitled to their own opinions - I don't give a damn."

Since the MET's previous Samson production remained in use for over 30 years, we have to face the fact that this one too, will be around for several decades. It behooves us therefore to examine it closely. We can only hope that although Hudson doesn't give a damn, someday someone else at the MET will, and eventually make at least some small changes. Having now inserted a note of optimism, I will finish my major carping (perish I should start on the minor ones).

They are the ballet and the collapse of the temple.

Whether you realize it or not, you already know the Samson et Dalila ballet music. It's the called the bacchanale and it's the "hootchy kootchy" music to which ladies in scanty clothes undulate at State Fairs. To this snakey orgiastic music, nearly naked hand painted Philistines perform a passionless acrobatic number in which the females are tossed about as if they were so many sticks or maybe corpses. As for the Temple's collapse, considering that we are living in an era in which helicopters land and large ships sink on our stages, it would have been nice for the Temple to have crunched a bit louder and for the Met to have gotten its curtain down on it on time.

For all my complaints, the minimalist approach to this opera produced some wonderfully evocative moments. One such is the prison scene, set tightly between black curtains center stage in which Samson, lit by a diagonal shaft of light, turns the heavy wheel, hears his people curse him, yet prays for them. Light was used magnificently throughout the production to create drama and emotion.

Placido Domingo was in the best voice he's been in recently and gave his usual committed performance. Grave's Dalila began luke warm, perhaps because of the slow tempo at which her first aria, Amour, viens m'aider was taken by Slatkin, but her singing intensified in emotion as the evening progressed. She alone, was appropriately gowned . The Russian bass Sergei Leiferkus as the High Priest, Franz Hawlata as the Old Hebrew and Alan Held as Abimelech were all excellent. Leonard Slatkin, who apparently has not conducted this work before, could have read the score with more fervor, but the orchestra and chorus performed well for him.

Samson et Dalila is not heavy on plot. It's a story of the tensions between extremes; between spiritual and pagan peoples, between love and scorn, between duty and personal happiness, between if you will, light (Samson's name is related to the word shemesh, sun in Hebrew) and darkness (Dalila's name contains the Hebrew lilah which means evening). Those tensions and the passions they evoke are in the music and libretto, and were made apparent in the performance I saw, by the first rate cast.

If you miss Samson et Dalila this season, see it next, or the one after that. It's well worth seeing and hearing for yourself why it is a classic and will survive this production.

Music by Camille Saint-SaŽns
Libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire
Production:Elija Moshinsky
Set and Costume design: Richard Hudson
Lighting designer:Duane Schuler
Choreographer: Graeme Murphy
Chorus Master: Raymond Hughes
Musical Preparation: Joan Dornemann
Scott Bergeson, Denise Massť, William Hicks
Samson Placido Domingo
Abimťlech Alan Held
High Priest Sergei Leiferkus
First Philistine Bernard Fitch
Second Philistine Yanni Yannissis
Messenber Matthew Polenzani
Old Hebrew Franz Hawlata
Dalila Denyce Graves
Conductor Leonard Slatkin
Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, (362-6000)
Reviewed performance 3/04/98; other performances 3/10/98 and 3/14/98
. Samson et Dalila will also open the 1998-99 season on September 28th, (the 30th anniversary of Placido Domiingo's Met debut).

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