Tuesday 30 June 2015

Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila at Grange Park Opera

Carl Tanner & ensemble - Samson et Dalila - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Carl Tanner & ensemble - Samson et Dalila - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Saint-Saens Samson et Dalila; Carl Tanner, Sara Fulgoni, Michel de Souza, dir: Patrick Mason, cond: Gianluca Marciano, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 28 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Imaginative re-casting of Saint-Saens biblical epic

Sara Fulgoni - Samson et Dalila - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Sara Fulgoni
photo credit Robert Workman
Despite the popularity of some of its music, Saint-Saens' opera Samson et Dalila is not a regular visitor to the UK opera stage. Covent Garden's 1981 production (designed by Sidney Nolan) gets revived intermittently (it's last outing was in 2004), but the opera does not get out much elsewhere. Now that Saint-Saens reputation as an opera composer is slowly being reassessed (Buxton did his opera La princesse jaune, whilst his grand opera Les Barbares has recently had a critical welcome on disc), it is surely a chance to re-visit his opera/oratorio Samson et Dalila, a work which is far more than simply a lovely mezzo-soprano aria.

At Grange Park Opera, Patrick Mason's new production faced the work's difficulties head one by completely avoiding the biblical setting and translating it to the period of intense anti-semitism in the Vichy Republic in France. The translocation required a bit a suspension of disbelief but the main thrust of the plot was brilliantly handled with a superb theatrical coup at the end. And Francis O'Connor set the piece in some highly stylish designs.

Carl Tanner sang Samson, with Sara Fulgoni as Dalila (now something of a celebrity filmstar), Nicholas Folwell as Abimelech, Christophoros Stamboglis as the Old Hebrew (now the Rabbi), Michel de Souza as the High Priest of Dagon (now the head of the local SS), with Edmond Choo, Roberto Abate, Matthew Thistleton and Carter Jeffries. Patrick Mason directed, with designs by Francis O'Connor, choreography by Nikki Woollaston and lighting by Paul Keogan.

Carl Tanner, Sara Fulgoni - Samson et Dalila - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Carl Tanner, Sara Fulgoni -photo credit Robert Workman
Act One opened in a synagogue which had been ravaged by violence, whilst Dalila's women at the end of the act rather resembled a group of neo-Hitler youth. A weakness of this scene was that the production employed no dancers, so that Nikki Woollaston's walking-about to music choreography did not really do justice to Saint-Saens and felt dramatically redundant. In Act Two we were in Dalila's stylish home. Here and elsewhere, Patrick Mason created some interesting theatrical dynamics with the two level set, helping to bring movement to the more static elements of the opera. Act Three involved a grand feasting celebration for Dagon, here more the 'glorious leader' than a religious cult figure. The bacchanale was a film, watched by those on-stage (but unseen by us), clearly starring Dalila. The chorus reactions to the film were brilliantly choreographed by Nikki Wollaston, and here the end did serve dramatic means and avoided the embarrassment of pseudo-sweaty bodies on stage. I had seen the film referred to as a porn film, but from the reaction it was clearly more than that and was propaganda too. It is worth remembering that in the original, Dagon is a fertility type cult, so an element of this must be factored in; Patrick Mason cleverly took many elements from Vichy France but was not completely slavish.

I have to confess that I found the first couple of acts did not really catch fire. There were good moments, the chorus of 28 worked hard and make a good thrilling, firm sound, and Carl Tanner as Samson sounded suitably heroic. Whilst Sara Fulgoni was voluptuously statuesque as Dalila, and Michel de Souza made a briskly scary High Priest. But, though conductor Gianluca Marciano was working hard, and clearly loves the score, much of the recitative felt heavy, sluggish almost. Neither Carl Tanner nor Sara Fulgoni were ideal.

Carl Tanner - Samson et Dalila - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Carl Tanner - photo credit Robert Workman
Carl Tanner has a virile, open sound which comes closer to Jon Vickers in this role (whom I heard in 1981) than anyone I have heard in a long time, but his phrasing could to be lumpen and bulge in places. Sara Fulgoni's richly vibrato laden voice seemed to heavy and too lacking in line to make Dalila the erotic beauty she is. This would not have mattered if the two had struck the right erotic sparks off each other during their encounters. But this didn't happen; Sara Fulgoni's appearance in Act One was far too stately, and the famous love scene in Act Two was finely sung but lacked any feeling of sexual tension. Carl Tanner's Samson kept saying that he could not help himself, but you did not feel it in his voice or body language.

All this changed in Act Three. With his opening aria, Voi ma misere Carl Tanner found the right heroic form, singing with passionate, intense and firm tone. The whole act built in one single dramatic crescendo, helped by the theatrical logic of the re-interpretation of the bacchanale. Having the blind Samson led round by a young boy dressed as a scout-like neo-Hitler youth, Carter Jeffries, clearly sympathetic to  him, was a brilliant touch. The ending, again with an element of fuzzy logic, with is brilliant Cordelia Parker-like explosion of the set was a strong final image. (One last quibble, Samson effected the destruction via an explosive device rather than a sudden miracle).

Michel de Souza, Edmond Choo - Samson et Dalila - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Michel de Souza, Edmond Choo - photo credit Robert Workman
Michel de Souza made a suave High Priest of Dagon, singing with a nice sense of style and a feel of constant present danger. Christophoros Stambolis was very dignified as the Old Hebrew, but appeared to have tuning problems with the orchestra. The smaller roles were strongly cast, with Nicholas Folwell as Abimelech, Robert Abate and Matthew Thistleton as Philistines, and Edmond Choo as the Philistine messenger.

As I have suggested, Gianluca Marciano drew virile playing from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and created a strong dramatic thrust particularly in Act Three. The real lushness of the score came over, with lots of detail in Saint-Saens imaginative orchestrations, but I did miss a sense of flexible French line and style. (It is well worth trying to get hold of George Pretre's recording with Jon Vickers and Rita Gorr.)

Saint-Saens opera is a big dramatic work requiring significant resources and the production at Grange Park Opera, in Patrick Mason and Francis O'Connor's imaginative recasting, was a notable achievement. But heroic voices rarely sing French 19th century opera nowadays with the requisite feel for style and it was this which you felt lacking. That and the lack of erotic charge between principals were compensated for by the sustained drama of the final act.

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