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Samson and Dalila Brings Down Roof

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
05/14/2005 -  and 17, 20, 23, 29 May and 1, 4 June 2005
Camille Saint-Saens: Samson and Dalila
Olga Borodina (Dalila), Carl Tanner (Samson), Kyle Ketelsen (Abimelech), Alan Held (High Priest of Dagon), Byron Jones (First Philistine), James Shaffran (Second Philistine), Tim Augustin (Philistine Messenger), Gregory Reinhart (Old Hebrew), Fidel Garcia (solo dancer)
Peter McClintock (stage director), Michael Scott (set and costume design), Joan Sullivan-Genthe (lighting design), Vladimir Angelov (choreographer)
Placido Domingo (conductor)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra

A sensational and seductive Samson and Dalila drew to a close the Washington National Opera’s 49th season, literally or at least theatrically bringing down the house. This work is a high point of French opera and, for that matter, a masterpiece that transcends all nationalistic bearings. It is simply a wonderful work, one filled with heightened drama and extraordinarily beautiful music.

And, at the bidding of the Washington National Opera, this Saint-Saens classic easily parlayed the work’s inherent qualities into a stunning production. It was one of those “you could hear a pin drop” kinds of moments. Whereas candy wrappers and shuffling usually accompany most operas, this Samson and Dalila had the audience spell bound.

In every aspect, this was a total production. Nothing was shortchanged in the artistic arena in this Peter McClintock staging. His wise eye and appreciation of the theatrical aspects of this opera, along with Michael Scott’s wonderfully rich and thematically rich sets and costumes and Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s highly artistic lighting merged to make the production a visual and auditory treat of significant proportions. The production was based on Giancarlo del Monaco’s original 1998 version.

Against the brilliant concepts was an equally brilliant cast, headed off by Carol Tanner as Samson and sensational Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina. Tanner, who is Virginia born and bred, delivered a passionately conceived and sung Samson. A compelling presence with a rounded tenor that scaled the heights with the greatest of ease, Tanner crafted a sensitive and sympathetic character drawn between love of his God and his people and love of the evil Dalila. Tanner is decidedly a bright star among tenors as he persuasive performance here proved.

Borodina, who apparently is making the role of Dalila her signature role, was magnificent both vocally and dramatically. Her mezzo is rich and full throughout her range and it flows with effortless ease, a lyrical delight to the ears, as was this performance. Borodina also proved herself to be quite the sensual being. Her seduction of Samson was all it should have been—calculated, provocative, and, obviously, irresistible. With the mere flip of a flowing shawl or the slightest glance over the shoulder, Borodina’s Dalila brilliantly masterminded Samson’s downfall. At Borodina’s hands, the Dalila defined evil seduction, not that seduction need be evil. But in the context of this Biblical tale, it was just that—evil seduction. There was never any second thinking for this Dalila. She had a mission to accomplish and by Dagon she did.

Together, Tanner and Borodina made incredibly lovely music together, bringing the utmost in passion to the delivery. That these talented singers proved to be fine actors made them a memorable Samson and Dalila.

This was a strong cast beyond the principals. Baritone Alan Held was wonderfully effective as the hate-filled High Priest of Dagon who spurred Dalila on to do in Samson. At Held’s hand, his strong voiced and projected vocal delivery spewed appropriate degrees of anger, bitterness and hate. His was a terrific performance, his character’s degrees of nastiness increasing with metered speed right through to the dynamic climax.

Had Samson listened to the Old Jew, as sung by bass Gregory Reinhart, things would have turned out differently. Reinhart’s stern delivery of warning to Samson to steer clear of Dalila was enough to make most men fall into line. His deep, resonant bass was effective and appealing, as was his entire performance.

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was vocally excellent as Abimelech, whose contributions to the singing excellence were cut short due to his character’s death early in the action. Bryon Jones and James Shaffran were effective as First and Second Philistines, respectively. As for the chorus of Philistines and Hebrews, the National Opera chorus was at its best, producing marvelously nuanced sounds that added meaning to the music.

McClintock’s stage direction was essentially flawless. Everything moved with purpose and found substantial visual success. There were no wasted motions here. When it required minimal movement, that’s what we got. And when it required wild abandon, we got that as well. Coupled with some of Sullivan-Genthe’s best lighting and Scott’s very useful and theatrical designs, the individual set pieces were visually enhancing and captivating. The opening moments of the work set the artistic tone for what was to follow. The concept, while seemingly simple, was the concept of a man of the theatre who knows how to make the most of music and meaning. The opening lamentation of the Hebrews over being captive to the Philistines is often sung before the curtain. However, here, the production team had obscure and dimly lighted objects behind a scrim on a darkened stage. The sounds were ethereal but all you could see were objects. As the light ever so slowly got brighter, the objects were revealed to be the Hebrews lying on the ground. Again, ever so slowly they began to move, all the while singing gloriously. Eventually, the fervor of their emotions increased and they were standing up joined in spirit against the oppressive Philistines. It took a very long vocal passage and brought meaning to the passage, the plight, and the passion involved in this tale. With that carefully crafted-for-image-producing-impact beginning, things just got better and better.

The seduction scene with its simple setting of sheer drapes, elegant carpets and pillows, and flaming torches, added to the focus on Samson and Dalila and the intense dramatic conflict taking place. The build up to the top down in Act III was quite effective, the bacchanale turning form a dance-like orgy to a dance of death, as superbly danced by Fidel Garcia. And, as expected, the roof came tumbling down at the end, Samson’s last burst of strength bringing down the house.

This was a grand moment, made especially so by Placido Domingo’s conducting. He stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Giovanni Reggioli and took the baton and this performance to great success. Domingo was in full control of the score and its many emotions. His insight and understanding of the score and the careful balance he maintained between the musicians and singers brought deepened degrees of awareness and appreciation to this most melodious work. This Samson and Dalila was perfect and perfectly appealing from start to finish, a sensational way to close a highly successful season.

John C. Shulson



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