Torpid 'Samson,' Finding Strength in Its Performances

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 16, 2005

Camille Saint-Saens had it right when he called his "Samson et Dalila" a "dramatic oratorio," defined by the Oxford Companion to Music as a "sacred work for soloists, chorus and orchestra on a large scale." Parts of the score are lovely, but it is dramatically inert and no more deserves to be called an opera than does Handel's "Messiah" or Mendelssohn's "Elijah."

Nevertheless, companies continue to stage "Samson," most recently our own Washington National Opera, which mounted a modified revival of its 1998 production on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. It is generally well cast -- with Arlington-bred tenor Carl Tanner as Samson, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Dalila, and numerous smaller roles fulfilled with sensitivity and style -- and, on opening night, it was conducted by WNO General Director Placido Domingo in the most assured orchestral performance I've yet heard from him. In short, those who love the music may wish to consider investing in a ticket.

Still, when one considers what, say, a Richard Wagner might have made of this decidedly sexy story, among the most lubricious yarns in the entire Old Testament, Saint-Saens's treatment comes up decidedly lacking in red corpuscles. With the exception of Dalila's arias, and the extended hoochie-coochie music of the Bacchanale, the music is best described by adjectives such as "tidy," "tasteful" and "expert"; it is the work of a prim, brilliant neoclassicist rather than a man with a fever. (If you wanted elemental power, far better to look out on the magnificent thunderstorm that broke at the first intermission.)

Because Saint-Saens wrote "Samson" without bothering to include much stage action, any director who would take it on is required to interpolate things for the characters to do over the course of three acts. The design, by Michael Scott, is pretty much your standard-issue biblical showpiece: With its dusty yellows, nocturnal blues and mysterious statuary, it would probably suffice equally well for an opera about Ben-Hur, should one happen to come along.

Peter McClintock has based his staging on the original production by Giancarlo del Monaco, removing a few arty ineptitudes and adding more dramatic thrust. The Bacchanale was choreographed by Vladimir Angelov in the chop-socky manner of Bruce Lee; it expanded gratuitously upon the opera's fundamental contempt for women to the point of including a lot of wriggling rear ends and, eventually, a writhing human sacrifice.

The singing was better. Tanner has a lighter and more lyrical voice than we are used to in this role (which was a favorite of heroic tenors such as Jon Vickers, Domingo and the later Caruso), but he hit all the notes and hit them hard. However, there's not much to be done with the character of Samson, whom Saint-Saens (in tandem with his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire) represents as stolid, humorless and dumber than that ass whose jawbone he once used.

Dalila is not a natural role for Borodina, who glories in her Russianness with the same national ardor that John McCormack brought to his interpretations of Irish songs. She is more steely than sexy and seemed less likely to seduce Samson on the desert sands than to conquer him, in the Northern manner of a Viking or a Valkyrie, and throw him on the back of her steed. Still, if Borodina was in many ways a cool Dalila, she was also quite an effective one, infusing the role with fierce energy and some luscious low notes.

Fine, thoughtful singing from Kyle Ketelsen as Abimelech; Alan Held as the High Priest of Dagon; Gregory Reinhart as the Old Hebrew; and Byron Jones, James Shaffran and Tim Augustin as a group of Philistines rounded out the performance. Domingo stepped in to conduct at the last minute, replacing Giovanni Reggioli, who was down with the stomach flu. The substitution was not announced and it is likely that most spectators had no idea it had happened, as the podium is all but invisible from many seats in the Kennedy Center Opera House. It is safe to say that Domingo the Conductor will not likely eclipse the memory of Domingo the Tenor, but his interpretation was propulsive and affectionate.

There will be six more performances of "Samson" through June 4 (Domingo will lead the one on May 23). Information: http://www.dc-opera.org or 202-295-2400.

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