Friday 18 August 2017

Dark & complex: Samson et Dalila at Grimeborn Festival

Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Grimeborn Festival - Leonel Pinheiro & chorus (photo Robert Workman)
Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Grimeborn Festival - Leonel Pinheiro & chorus (photo Robert Workman)
Saint-Saens Samson et Dalila; Leonel Pinheiro, Marianne Vidal, Thomas Humphreys, dir:Aylin Bozok, md: Kelvin Lim; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 16 2017
Star rating: 3.5

A brave attempt at a re-invention of a classic

With its huge choruses, heroic tenor part and undramatic structure, Camille Saint-Saens' lumpen opera/oratorio Samson et Dalila is hardly the obvious choice for a small scale studio performance. But having given us Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande (see my review) and Massenet's Werther (see my review) in previous years, director Aylin Bozok and the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre decided to transpose Saint-Saens' grand operatics to the studio in a striking re-interpretation of the piece. Leonel Pinheiro was Samson, Marianne Vidal was Dalila and Thomas Humphreys was the High Priest, with James Ioelu as Abimelech and the Old Philistine. Aylin Bozok directed and designed, whilst Kelvin Lim accompanied on the piano.

Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Grimeborn Festival - Ozgur Boz, Marianne Vidal (photo Robert Workman)
Ozgur Boz, Marianne Vidal (photo Robert Workman)
Bozok presented the piece in a striking never-land, where the dark lighting and atmospheric background noises created a mood even before the opera started. With no set, Ian Massah-Harris's makeup designs (executed by co-designer Juan Lopez Alvarez and his team from Seventa Makeup Academy) contributed to the striking look of the piece, as did Robert Price's highly dramatic lighting plot. This was no conventional Samson et Dalila; Bozok's programme note referred to the setting being dream-like, but this was something more nightmarish.

Key to Bozok's interpretation was the removal of Biblical/historical references from the staging. Whilst the text still referred to Israel and Israelites, the stage action was internalised. Samson (Leonel Pinheiro) had a very intense and very personal relation with his god (the sun), and the action of Act Two more related to the bringing down of Samson's god rather than Samson's hair. In Act Three, Thomas Humphreys' High Priest gleefully took on the attributes of Samson's god, but at the end the got rose again to support Samson. The concept was emphasised by having Samson's god personified; Ozgur Boz wearing sun-goggles and floor-length coat. Boz was on-stage before the music started and apart from at the opening of Act Three, he was present for much of the action and we came to understand the atmospheric background noises as being another manifestation of his presence.

It worked at all was because the entire cast gave full commitment to the production and the concept. As with other Bozok productions that I have seen, this one was full of strange details which contributed to the overall effect, but left one puzzling; much detailed and dramatic mime, Dalila's embracing what looked like the pelt of a dead cat during her crucial Act Two solo; Ozgur Boz's remarkable amount of naked belly on show. The fact that one of the main attributes of the Sun god was a pair of dark goggles left the production open to the skittish comment that Bozok had reduced the action down to a fight over a pair of sun glasses. The best known aspect of the plot, however, was lacking; everyone knows that Dalila seduces Samson and, learning of his secret, shears his hair to remove his strength but this was entirely absent
The role of Samson is one of the most heroic in classic 19th century French opera, and though the opera has only has around two hours of music, Samson must shoulder much of it. It is not a role to be cast with a light-voice lyric even if sung with just piano accompaniment. Leonel Pinheiro made an impressive Samson. In Act One he seemed a little laboured, but warmed to his task and impressed with the way he created a consistently firm and heroic line. His duet with Dalila in Act Two was not the most erotic of things, but his account of the great solo scene at the beginning of Act Three was powerful and moving. For the rest of Act Three, Pinheiro really did convey the idea of Samson moving to a different drummer.

Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Grimeborn Festival - Leonel Pinheiro, Marianne Vidal (photo Robert Workman)
The drawback was the Pinheiro's heroic tone was given generally at mezzo-forte or louder; not entirely his fault, in a larger space this would have worked very well. But it made the performance very loud, especially as the chorus sound was also very present. Combined with Kelvin Lim's strenuous account of the piano accompaniment, this meant that there were times when it seemed as if the performance was a size to large for the space.

Marianne Vidal projected a vibrant, sexy Dalila. In this version she was meant to be part fantasy figure, in Samson's mind, but I felt that Vidal rather too self-consciously projected the sexy image rather than allowing it to grow from the vocal line. That said, she sang with a warm, flexible tone which took on a lovely quality when she sang quietly. Her great Act Two aria was lovely, though I could have wished that the piano accompaniment had been more subtle here. Like Pinheiro, her voice would also have benefited from a more generous acoustic.

Thomas Humphreys sang the High Priest's role with aplomb, and his re-interpretation of the role in this version was positively gleeful and made a real success of Bozok's concept. James Ioelu provided strong, idiomatic support in the combined role of Abimelech and the Old Philistine. The smaller roles were all ably taken by members of the chorus, Ian Massa Harris (first Philistine), David Padua (second Philistine) and Bo Wang (Messenger).

The hard-working chorus of eight, produced some admirable sounds, their quiet opening chorus was particularly fine but there we moments when there was no denying that Saint-Saens had been writing for a large body of singers. The chorus members did not just sing, meant to be the embodiment of the main characters internal thoughts, they had a very physical role to play and were key in creating the production's very specific atmosphere.

The version we heard was discreetly cut, but we still got around two hours of music. Thankfully the Baccanale was trimmed, though I would have been happy to lose it entirely; without Saint-Saens orchestration the piano reduction sounded laboured and rather more trivial than usual.

This was a big problem with the production, though Kelvin Lim laboured manfully at the piano the piano-reduction in the vocal score was no replacement for Saint-Saens' fine orchestra. The complexity of the score was only inadequately rendered, and you felt that some passages could have done with at least a second pianist at the piano. As it was, too many scenes suffered from the stodgy nature of the piano accompaniment. When the rest of the production was so carefully considered, it was shame that someone had not taken the same care with the edition used for the accompaniment.

The opera was sung in French which varied from the native speaker, through the creditable to the passable. Diction was good, so we hardly needed the excellent surtitles.

Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Grimeborn Festival - Thomas Humphreys (photo Robert Workman)
Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Grimeborn Festival - Thomas Humphreys (photo Robert Workman)
This was a brave attempt at re-invention of a classic. Because of the static nature of many of the scenes Samson et Dalila can be difficult to bring off in the theatre, and Aylin Bozok and her cast are to be commended for their striking effort. I would like to see this production again, in a rather larger space and with a specially commissioned chamber accompaniment.

Elsewhere on this blog:

1 comment:

  1. Extreme care was taken with the edition-Durand Edition, reduction by Saint-Säens. Also many extra harmonies, instrumental lines and expression markings not in the vocal score were present. These were all taken from the full score and meticulously written into the performing vocal score. Please make sure your critique/comments are more carefully made. Happy to discuss and show the vocal score which was used and all additions made via PDF. Thank you.


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