Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila (Paris, 2016)

Camille Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila

L'Opéra de Paris, 2016

Philippe Jordan, Damiano Michieletto, Anita Rachvelishvili, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Egils Silins, Nicolas Testé, Nicolas Cavallier, John Bernard, Luca Sannai, Jian-Hong Zhao 

ARTE Concert - 13 October 2016

Originally conceived as an oratorio Samson et Dalila was, soon after a visit to see Das Rheingold at Bayreuth, developed by Camille Saint-Saëns into something more operatic. If there's little suggestion of Wagnerian influence, the unconventional method of opera composition led to Samson et Dalila having a unique and blend of music and drama elements that were perfect for the composer's strengths. It has Biblical drama, lyrical Romantic passions, lush Eastern musical arrangements and choral fervour that manage to express the contrasting sentiments at the heart of the work. If you like that sort of thing - and it's only slightly less extravagant in its exoticism than Aida - Samson et Dalila can be something fabulous, particularly when the Paris Opera get behind it the way they do in this 2016 production.

Like many other French composers around the end of the nineteenth century, Camille Saint-Saëns shared a fascination for all things oriental, travelling extensively in these exotic places and soaking up more than just a flavour of these new sounds. Mélodies persanes (1870), La Princess Jaune (1872) and Samson et Dalila (1877) are not just influenced by oriental rhythms and melodies, but positively seeped in them. There might be a tendency to regard such borrowings as kitsch or, in the parlance of our times, "cultural appropriation", but they really are what make these works distinctively beautiful.

While there might be a tendency to downplay such elements and attempt to find a middle-ground that is a little acceptable to modern tastes and sensibilities, that's not the strategy adopted by Philippe Jordan for Samson et Dalila. Quite rightly, Jordan conducts the orchestra of the Paris Opera in a manner that emphasises the true merits of the work. It's not only there that you find the sheer beauty of the composer's extravagant orchestration for the piece, but the heart of its drama. With two great singers in the principal roles and attention paid to the choral aspects of the work musically, I found this to be one of the finest and most persuasive performances of Samson et Dalila that I've come across.

Damiano Michieletto's direction of the work at the Bastille doesn't perhaps contribute quite as much as the musical performance to the success of the production, but it functions well enough to give a strong visual and dramatic context for the work. It is a typical Paris production in that, unlike the musical performance, it does tend to settle for a middle-ground. The period lies somewhere between modern and Biblical, with guns and togas (albeit used in an 'ironic' kind of way) and nothing much that adds up to any real conceptual or thematic coherence. Good vertical use is made of the stage, the Hebrew slaves confined to the darker lower levels, the misery of their captivity contrasted with the golden glow of the luxurious decadence of Delilah's bedroom above it.

It's in such contrasts however that Samson et Dalila thrives as a work of music drama, and those contrasts are well reflected also in the complementary casting of Aleksandrs Antonenko and Anita Rachvelishvili. Both artists are regulars at the Paris Opera, and their development there is paying dividends for French opera. While she is capable of great dramatic delivery and an impressive range, Rachvelishvili shows here just how versatile her voice is and how capable she is of expressing the kind of delicacy and tenderness that are vital to Delilah's allure. Evidently it's Delilah's beautiful 'Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix' aria that demonstrates what she is capable of, and her delivery of the line 'Réponds à ma tendresse!' is enough to send shivers down the spine.

It's a love/betrayal aria that turns into a duet of course, shared with Samson, and Antonenko blends perfectly. Antonenko is a tenor who is strong right across the range, but only really shines in certain roles. Verdi roles can be testing, and his voice can have a certain steeliness that doesn't open up and bloom as you might like, but here he complements Rachvelishvili well, providing the contrast that is necessary, giving the aria the edge of hesitancy and danger it needs before the recognition of betrayal that comes with the cry of 'Trahison!'. With Jordan and the Paris orchestra right behind this, the swooning loveliness exploding into rage, you have everything that is musically and dramatically great about this work all summed up the closing duet of Act II.

If much of Act III can feel rather kitsch with its soft choruses and oriental dance music, there similarly should be an underlying suggestion of anguish and menace for the coming fate of Samson and Delilah. The costumes don't quite manage this, the Philistines dressing up in praise of Dagon as if for a Roman orgy, all in glittering dresses and togas, with gold laurel crowns, throwing money down from Delilah's balcony onto the revellers, the downtrodden Hebrew slaves and the tormented Samson. If it studiously goes out of its way to deny the audience the expected toppling of the marble pillars conclusion - one of the few scenes of dramatic action that there is in the opera - the self-immolation scene carried out with a repentant Delilah's compliance nonetheless delivers the kind of bang the opera needs to end on.

Not providing the expected famous pay-off is a bit of a risk and it's not as if it is for the sake of any additional edge or to make some concession to a contemporary reality, but in its own way probably Damiano Michieletto's middle-ground production does more or less find an equivalent level of where Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila lies. More importantly however the work is given its due where it really counts; in the music and singing performances. And with this kind of account of one of the highlights of French opera of the Belle Époque, the Paris opera make the case that those merits are not inconsiderable.

Links: L'Opéra de Paris, ARTE Concert