Thursday 9 December 2021

Samson et Dalila: Sir Sidney Nolan and the opera

Sidney Nolan: Designs for silk floor cloths for ‘Samson et Dalila’, 1981 (Image courtesy of Christopher Kingzett Fine Art)
Sidney Nolan: Designs for silk floor cloths for Samson et Dalila, 1981
(Image courtesy of Christopher Kingzett Fine Art)
In May next year, the Royal Opera debuts a new production of Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila, directed by Richard Jones and designed by Hyemi Shin and Nicky Gillibrand. 

The company last performed Samson et Dalila in 2004, the final outing for the 1981 production directed by Elijah Moshinsky and designed by the Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan. Whilst I am delighted that the piece is back on the Royal Opera House stage, it seems a great shame that we have to bid farewell to Nolan's stunning designs which I feel should have been declared national treasures.

Moshinsky and Nolan's production debuted on 28 September 1981, conducted by Sir Colin Davis with Jon Vickers and Shirley Verrett in the title roles. I was there, and it remains one of my vivid memories, though I also saw Placido Domingo (1985) and Jose Carreras (1991) in the opera as well. By the time of the revival in 2004, with Jose Cura and Denyce Graves, the production seems to have been creaking and the sets in a bad way. It is sad that the opportunity was not taken to refurbish one of Nolan's few major operatic ventures.

Whilst Nolan designed quite extensively for stage, Samson et Dalila seems to have been a rare venture into opera. He would design drop curtains for Moshinsky's 1985 production of Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, but Nolan first worked at the Royal Opera House in 1962 when he designed Kenneth MacMillan's The Rite of Spring (which is still in the repertoire). Intriguingly, I remember when the Royal Opera was considering a new Ring cycle in the 1980s, a suggestion was made that Nolan be invited to design it, now that would have made for a striking dramatic journey! 

Nolan first worked in the theatre in 1940 in Australia when he designed Serge Lifar's Icare for the Original Ballet Russe, and Nolan would go on to work with other choreographers including Robert Helpmann. In 1945 Nolan began his iconic series of Ned Kelly paintings (now held at the National Gallery of Australia) and intriguingly would create the designs for Douglas Stewart's play Ned Kelly in 1956.

Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila opens at the Royal Opera House on 26 May 2022, with Nicky Spence and Elina Garanca, conducted by Antonio Pappano, further information from Operabase.

Further information about Sir Sidney Nolan from the Sidney Nolan Trust.

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