Monday 20 March 2017

Thrilling moments from a youthful cast in Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila

Samson et Dalila at the Paris Opéra, 1892:
Samson et Dalila at the Paris Opéra, 1892:
Camille Saint-Saens Samson et Dalila; Claudia Huckle, Aaron Cawley, Michel de Souza, Michael Scott Rogers; Chelsea Opera Group at Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 19 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Some notable performances in an ultimately thrilling account of Saint-Saens best-known

Camille Saint-Saens' opera Samson et Dalila retains a toe-hold on the repertoire (the only one of the composer's operas twelve to do so) thanks in part to its highly memorable tunes. But the Royal Opera's production has not been seen in London since 2004, and the opera's only recent UK outing seems to have been Grange Park Opera's 2015 production (see my review). So Chelsea Opera Group's performance at the Cadogan Hall on Sunday 19 March 2017 was extremely welcome. Matthew Scott Rogers, who joined the Royal Opera House's Jette Parer young Artists Programme at the start of the 2016/2017 season, conducted the Chelsea Opera Group orchestra and chorus, with Aaron Cawley as Samson, Claudia Huckle as Dalila, Nicholas Folwell as Abimelech, Michel de Souza as the High Priest of Dagon, and Jihoon Kim as the old Hebrew.

The two title roles of the opera are large scale and taxing, requiring dramatic voices; the classic recording with Jon Vickers and Rita Gorr gives some idea of the size and type of voices required, The first Samson (the opera was premiered under Liszt's patronage at Weimar in 1877) sang dramatic tenor roles in Wagner and Meyerbeer as well as Arnold in Guillaume Tell and Manrico in Il Trovatore, and the first Dalila sang Azucena in Il trovatore and Fricka in Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Chelsea Opera Group was lucky to find two young singers, Aaron Cawley and Claudia Huckle, with the right style and type of voice for the roles. Both are young and I doubt that either will be singing the role on stage any time soon, but both Cawley and Huckle were admirable in the way they coped with the dramatic rigours required of them.

Aaron Cawley is only 30 and sings at the Hessiche Staatsoper in Wiesbaden were his repertoire (Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) and Rodolfo (La Boheme) with plans for Lensky (Eugene Onegin), Erik (The Flying Dutchman) and Riccardo (Un ballo in maschera)), gives no hint of the size and vibrancy of his voice. Cawley's is thrilling voice seems to have bigger roles beckoning. It is rather a high-tension voice and as yet his very upper register still seems to require a high degree of careful management. It is also very loud.
In the middle and lower registers, Cawley could and did sing quietly, giving us some lovely moments, but in his upper voice he seemed to have difficulty singing below full voice, though in moments like the Act Two duet he did his best to modulate his tones. In the opening Act, this sort of ringing vibrancy was just what was wanted, and Cawley's tone cut through Saint-Saen's rich orchestration in just the right way. In the opening solo of Act Three, Cawley was profoundly moving but did not quite convey the full world-weary intensity that an artist like Jon Vickers did (but then Vickers was 56 when I saw him in the role, so Cawley has some way to go). That said, he was taking great care with the music and shaping it well, and of course the final moments were truly cataclysmic. Impressively Cawley's stamina remained strong until the end, and his voice seemed hardly phased by this big sing.

Whilst Claudia Huckle's dark mezzo-soprano (her website refers to her as a contralto) did not always match Cawley in volume, her voice is vibrant and expressive and Huckle was never in danger of being over-shadowed. In Act One her short but seductive solo was notable but seemed a little stiff. In Act Two, the scene with Michel de Souza's High Priest of Dagon was thrillingly dramatic stuff with Huckle and de Souza knocking sparks off each other. Huckle's voice has a lovely rich middle and lower register, along with some thrillingly climactic high notes, but she was also able to sing. But for the famous love scene, Huckle was well able to lighten her voice and sing with a glorious flexibility. Cawley's high-tension interjection aptly conveyed Samson's anguished passion. This scene is the most famous in the opera, and in many way's its high-point but it does not always come off. Despite the concert performance, Cawley and Huckle seemed to generate the right amount of tension, and throughout Huckle was at pains to project the right amount of seductive malice. Dalila is a big sing for a young mezzo, and Huckle's performance a notable achievement.

The remaining cast were all extremely strongly cast. Michel de Souza sang the role of the High Priest of Dagon in Grange Park Opera's 2015 staging, and here projected the role with style, relish and bags of menace. Nicholas Folwell was luxury casting in the small role of Abimelech, and Jihoon Kim was strong and stylish in the role of the Old Hebrew. Three chorus members, John Vallance, Kevin Hollands and Tim Sawers contributed notable cameo roles as the two Philistines and the Philistine Messenger.

The chorus and orchestra both play an important role in this opera. The piece's oratorio like first act ensuring that there is plenty for the chorus to do. Matthew Scott Rogers seemed to be taking great care over Act One and his speeds seemed to be steady and careful, in fact rather too much. Whilst this enabled the chorus to sing with great power and no little precision, the act did rather take quite a long time to catch fire. But throughout the chorus were on good form. The drama seemed to really start with the opening of Act Two and from here on, Scott Rogers and the orchestra were on thrilling form. Saint-Saens gives the orchestra plenty to do, and there was much to enjoy in this performance. Whilst the Act Three Bacchanale might not work terribly well as the dramatic climax to a staged version of the opera, it is a cracking orchestral showpiece and Scott Rogers certainly gave the orchestra its head here.

For all its famous big tunes, Samson et Dalila is not an opera which plays itself. Whilst Chelsea Opera Group's performance seemed a bit slow to start, by the end it certainly gripped with some notable performances from cast, chorus and orchestra.

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