NEW YORK — Art can serve as an escape from reality, and escapism was the theme of the Metropolitan Opera’s season opening on Monday night. The stage was filled with pink feathers and gold leaf and nearly naked dancers writhing under jewel-toned lighting that flooded the backdrop with pink and blue and fuchsia. Saint-Saens’s “Samson et Dalila” is filled with sumptuous music and a brand of Orientalism that carries over well from 1877, when the opera was written, to the 1920s Hollywood aesthetic of Alexander Dodge’s sets. It’s also a dramatically static piece, familiar without being especially beloved, so the more spectacle you shovel onto it, the better, and audiences are not likely to mind much.
The Met could use some escape, and it clearly welcomes the new beginning. This was the first opening of the post-James Levine era. On Sunday, it was preceded by an announcement of a raft of new plans from Peter Gelb and the brand-new music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, including the company’s first commissions from female composers: Missy Mazzoli (whose “Proving Up” recently had its world premiere at the Washington National Opera and who will adapt George Saunders’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo”) and Jeanine Tesori. Tesori, composer of the Washington National Opera holiday piece “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me,” was one of the composers involved in the commissioning program the Met and the Lincoln Center Theater launched in 2006; another, Ricky Ian Gordon, will finally see a Lincoln Center Theater production of his piece with Lynn Nottage, “Intimate Apparel.” And Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center’s composer in residence, will write an opera based on Michael Chabon’s book “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” co-commissioned with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
That’s a lot of new. “Samson,” too, was rife with debuts, at least on the production team, led by director Darko Tresnjak, who is mainly known for his work in spoken theater (winning a Tony in 2014 for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”) but has a considerable opera résumé as well. Tresnjak, Dodge and costume designer Linda Cho, all new to the company, created a paean to a bygone era of glamour and stereotype. The action was framed in a large circle within the proscenium that began and ended each act veiled by a metal mesh, like a harem screen. The stage was flooded with teams of choristers and dancers, the Israelite slaves in homespun and the Philistines in gold lame, picking their way down the steep staircase in Act I without much care for verisimilitude. The production wasn’t exactly revelatory, but it was at least inoffensive.
You don’t cast new singers on opening night; you need big names to draw the crowds, with experience to deliver a big performance under opening-night pressure. The problem is that there are fewer truly big names these days, apart from Anna Netrebko, who sings Aida at the Met on Wednesday. Mezzo Elina Garanca and tenor Roberto Alagna are both at the top of the opera hierarchy but may not have quite the same level of name recognition.
Garanca is a magnificent singing actress. Oddly, though, she seemed a little challenged by the role of the consummate seductress, all sultry low notes and starlet-like moues. There’s not a lot of character development in this opera, and she did what she could with what there was — such as the moment when Samson finally yields and chokes out an “I love you,” when she looked up with a Liz Taylor-worthy “aha” expression. But even the singing seemed a little distanced, in a role with three of the most achingly sensual arias in the repertory. “Printemps qui commence,” the first of these, was downright ponderous in its delivery, as if bogging down in all that rich chest voice. She hit her stride more with the third aria, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” and really caught fire in the final scene, when the character lets down her mask and reveals that she hates Samson and that all of her seduction has been a lie.
Alagna was billed early in his career as “The Fourth Tenor” and suffered for some time through the backlash of that hubristic claim, though time has shown that he has indeed been the most consistent and best of the generation of tenors that followed Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras. He’s been singing for some time, though, and on Monday it sounded as though opening-night pressure had tripped him up; his entrance was throaty and tinny, with a wobble to the sound, and he messed up his final heroic note at the close. This was a real shame, because in between, he delivered some wonderful strong singing in the heroic French tradition of which he is one of the best exponents. Laurent Naouri made a strong showing as the Philistine high priest; his baritone has deepened and grown more assured with time.
Apart from the three leads, this opera is a showpiece for chorus and orchestra, and both sounded in fine form under Mark Elder, a conductor with ability, experience and no Met-related baggage. The most spectacular part of the evening was the bacchanal in the temple, in which the dancers got increasingly carried away and ended by scaling and caressing the giant statue of a man-god, divided in two, while Elder whipped the orchestra into effusions. Yet the destruction of the temple, after all that, involved only some bright lights and arm-waving from the chorus: less a bang then a whimper. It certainly didn’t usher in a new beginning with a rousing success, but it was neither a disaster nor a great controversy, and, low as that bar is set, the Met will probably be happy to take it.
“Samson et Dalila” continues at the Met through March 28.