Virginia Opera has taken some risks with its new season. The company presents four excellent operas, none of them exactly an audience favorite. The stakes wagered showed in large swaths of empty seats for the first of them, "Samson et Dalila" by Camille Saint-Saëns, seen on Saturday night at George Mason University's Center for the Arts.
Mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner purred and snarled in Dalila's sensuous arias, from a smoky chest voice up to powerful, slightly weathered top notes. Goeldner also caught the sinister inflection of the biblical temptress's music. Even before the third act, where she crowed the tunes of the love music to mock the blinded, powerless Samson, we knew this love was poisonous.
As Samson, tenor Derek Taylor did not have the same ease on stage, wooden in his acting and his voice covered into dullness at the top. Michael Chioldi's High Priest, by contrast, oozed confidence and vocal power to match Goeldner, giving the listener no doubts about who was really in love with whom. Stefan Szkafarowsky had suitable gravitas as the Old Hebrew, and apprentice and former apprentice singers rounded out the supporting roles.
This is the fourth season for Virginia Opera's ambitious young principal conductor and artistic adviser, Adam Turner. It is easy to see why his star his risen since his journeyman days as an undergraduate at Catholic University. Turner's baton wove together a fabric more luxurious than its individual threads. Members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra played beautifully, some problems in the low strings aside, and the chorus made the best of the oratorio-like material the composer wrote for them.
Librettos do not get much more sensational than this one, staging a murder, a seduction, a blinding, a Bacchanal, and an entire temple collapsing. Director Paul Curran did not need to add anything controversial, but he did with a half-baked updating to the World War II era (modern costumes and Gestapo-like armbands designed by Court Watson).
In the Act III orgy scene, a troupe of dancers left nothing to the imagination, crowned by a scantily clad acrobat (Marcy Richardson) writhing on a suspended ring. Curran's best contribution was to acknowledge the age difference between the singers in the title roles, with Goeldner spending the first part of Act II removing a wig and putting on another one onstage, deconstructing ideas of beauty and sexual allure.
This production runs for two more performances, Oct. 13 and 15, at the Dominion Arts Center in Richmond.