Friday 27 May 2022

Musical treats: Richard Jones' production of Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila fails to convince, but there is much to listen to

Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH / Clive Barda)
Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH / Clive Barda)

Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila: Elīna Garanča, SeokJong Baek, Łukasz Goliński, director Richard Jones, conductor Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera House
Reviewed 26 May 2022, (★★★)

Well worth experiencing for fine performances from the principals, Covent Garden's new production ultimately fails to convince dramatically

The Royal Opera House's decision to replace its 1981 production of Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila seems somewhat strange given that production's iconic designs by Sir Sidney Nolan. But offering the new production to Richard Jones might seem an interesting way of providing a new slant on Saint-Saens' problematic work. Full of good tunes and moments of drama, the work is extremely static at times and if you don't take the plot at face value then it seems to offer directors few opportunities for imaginative subtext, at least modern productions of the work seem to struggle. Add to this, the fact that Nicky Spence had to withdraw from the production following his accident earlier this year, and you have a number of factors that lent interest to the new production's debut.

Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Elīna Garanča, SeokJong Baek - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH / Clive Barda)
Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila
Elīna Garanča, SeokJong Baek
Royal Opera House (Photo ROH / Clive Barda)
Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila opened at the Royal Opera House last night (26 May 2022) directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Antonio Pappano, with Elīna Garanča as Dalila, SeokJong Baek as Samson, and Łukasz Goliński as the High Priest. Sets were by Hyemi Shin and costumes were by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Andreas Fuchs and choreography by Lucy Burge.

Designs were clean, spare and abstract so that Hyemi Shin's sets created some intriguing shapes. We were in some sort of totalitarian regime. Nothing was specific, though the Hebrews were clearly a Jewish community in the 20th century and during the prelude, we saw orange clad soldiers terrorising the Hebrew people. This modernisation apart, Jones has kept to the opera's plot but with a couple of extra twists to the dramaturgy. In Act One, Dalila's appearance was alone, not with a chorus of girls (this music is sung by the Hebrew women making offerings of thanks to Samson) and she did a seductive solo, and the production rather worked at setting Dalila apart from the Philistines. Her behaviour in Act Two was partly explained by having the High Priest (here a rather sinister General), show her Abimelech's body whilst at the end of that act, Samson's final cry was not in response to having his hair cut but to seeing the body of his beloved Rabbi (the Old Hebrew in the original).

This all worked and by the interval (after Act Two), thanks to some fine performances, we were hooked and intrigued. Jones' Big Idea for Act Three was to re-run the staging of Act One but with roles reversed and gaudier costumes; the opening scene with Samson mirrored the High Priest's scene, then the lead in to the Bacchanal was the same as Dalila's scene in Act One except this time Dalila was having offerings made to her, and the 'seductive' dance was done by the male dancers and then the whole chorus. At this point, the production lost me. 

The Bacchanal is always a problem, Saint-Saens' music is too 19th century to give a really modern take on Bacchanal so if you drop 19th century conventions then what are you left with?  Lucy Burge's athletic choreography was unimaginative, the male dancers were simply neither seductive, nor sexy nor sufficiently physically breath-taking, and whilst I can only admire the chorus' hard work at doing all the movement required, the result simply lacked the intensity needed to hold the interest during the music. The final scene of the act replayed the opening scene of the opera but with glitzier designs. Samson did bring the house down, but only in a token, stylised way and what you remember from the end of the piece was visual look of the costuming and a deliberately tacky and ugly statue of Dagon. By the end of the work, there was a sense that Jones was finding things to do to fit the music. As I said at the beginning, if you don't stage the piece by taking it at face value, then you run into problems.

Thankfully, this was a musically strong performance and we came away with glorious memories of Elīna Garanča's golden tone, silky line and fluid phrasing as Dalila. Her French sounds French, and she has sufficient middle and lower register for the role without ever coming over as somewhat matronly. She was a seductive Dalila, seeming comfortable moving and dancing, and her solo in Act Two (the famous one) was so beautifully sung and touching that you wondered whether this was an act or not. That, essentially, is always this opera's problem and Jones never quite solved it. 

Facing her was South Korean tenor SeokJong Baek, not only making his house and role debut, but he has only recently moved from baritone to tenor. His well focused, strong voice with its admirably robust lower register was ideal for this role, and he shaped the music well. His French was creditable, and he was willing to sing quietly, often floating phrases finely so that his great solo at the opening of Act Three was a quietly intense moment. He is, perhaps, not as natural a stage animal as Garanča but the two's scenes together did crackle and if he did not quite overwhelm at the very end, part of the problem was down to the production as there was just too much else going on.

Łukasz Goliński snarled, growled and pawed the ground wonderfully as the High Priest. He seemed to be in charge of the Philistine forces and was a fearsome figure, sung with assurance by Goliński. Goderdzi Janelidze as Samson's Rabbi (the Old Hebrew) had a wonderfully dark black voice that I would love to hear in a bigger role. Here he lent strength and power to the music, and had a far larger dramatic role than Saint-Saens and his librettists envisaged, his spirit in Act Three almost standing in for Samson's vision of Jehovah.

The smaller roles were all strongly taken by members of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and the Jette Parker Anniversary Company. Blaise Malaba was a robust Abimelech with a wonderful gilded bald head, whilst Alan Pingarron and Chuma Sijeqa were Philistines and Thando Mjandana was the Messenger.

The chorus was on terrific form throughout whether line dancing as Philistines or expressing collective anguish as the Hebrews, and much of the staging relied not only on the fine choral sound by the sheer physicality of the chorus. Bravo to all of them. 

Pappano and the orchestra were on similar strong form, though the robust sound world that Pappano conjured did not really echo the sort of suave sounds that the composer admired in the operas of Gounod and Massenet. This was a dramatically accented and highly rhythmic performance, and there were times when I simply wanted a sense of a richly upholstered line and seductive tone qualities. 

Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH / Clive Barda)
Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH / Clive Barda)

Musically, there was much to admire in this production, with Elīna Garanča's wonderfully compelling performance as Dalila and SeokJong Baek finely heroic Samson well supported by the remaining cast and with chorus and orchestra in strong form. Jones' production has some interesting ideas even if the ending remains problematic. 

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