The story of the siren Delilah seducing the Hebrew hero Samson into giving up the secret of his strength — his hair — is Sunday-school familiar. Ferdinand Lemaire’s libretto comprises both play-by-play and color commentary; the opera could almost work as an oratorio. (In places, the characters tell you what’s going to happen, they tell you what’s happening, and then they tell you what happened.) But conductor John Fiore, especially in the show’s second half, found a compensatory musical momentum, balancing Saint-Saëns’s lushness with dashes of rhythmic point.
The headline draw was American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, as Delilah, making her WNO debut. Her instrument and talent were striking. Her singing showed more power than delicacy: her low notes were great, elemental things, seeming to roll through the auditorium, her high range all sharply milled gunmetal. As Samson, Roberto Aronica’s bright, burly tenor matched her peal for peal, but he shifted into a more introspective gear for Samson’s post-haircut lament (“Vois ma misère, hélas”) to beguiling effect.
Baritone Noel Bouley made the Philistine High Priest a smooth spin doctor with rich, easy volume; bass-baritone Tomas Tomasson grabbed onto the role of the nefarious Abimélech with aggressive relish. In smaller roles, Peter Volpe, Matthew Pearce, Samuel J. Weiser and Joshua Blue — the last three from the WNO’s Young Artist Program — proved a strong bench. The chorus, directed by Steven Gathman, started off fuzzy, but soon came into focus, with the men providing some especially clear and clarion passages.
The acting ranged from silent-movie simple to silent-movie showy. Bridges was a zealous vamp from the get-go; Tomasson a prowling, barefaced malefactor; Bouley a restless shark, gliding between wily poses. (Michael Scott and Timm Burrow’s costumes were built for such flamboyance: regal, riotous combinations of gilt and color fashioned into flowing robes designed to be twirled like a villain’s mustache.) Aronica went to the other extreme, rotating through a small repertoire of stock gestures, letting his vocal presence do the bulk of the work.
Director Peter Kazaras made room for both styles, embracing the opera’s tell-more-than-show dramaturgy, moving from tableau to tableau. One could wish for a stronger sense of physical purpose with less meandering, but most of the scenes arrived at balanced pictures. As in WNO’s “Don Giovanni,” playing in repertory with this show, Erhard Rom’s geometric, neutral-ground sets and scrims were cloaked and transformed by S. Katy Tucker’s video projections, showing more Technicolor flair and special effects than the restrained palette used in the Mozart.
The climactic bacchanal was an old-school operatic-cinematic anthology: Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography practically putting incandescent, marquee-lit quotation marks around the idea of “pagan” dancing; Bridges and Bouley, resplendently attired, repeatedly throwing their arms wide in theatrical triumph; Robert Wierzel’s lighting dramatically isolating Samson in a bold white iris. And when all the elements lined up, one could spot opera’s omnivorous glory: high and low, refined and gaudy, grand and goofy, in shameless complementarity.
Washington National Opera's "Samson and Delilah" will be performed intermittently through March 21 at the Kennedy Center's Opera House.