Vienna State Opera 2017-18 Review – Samson et Dalila: Despite Solid Turns From Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanca, Modern Makeover of Classic Bible Story Goes Up In Flames (Literally)

By Jonathan Sutherland

Taking the biblical element out of “Samson et Dalila” makes about as much sense as setting “Madama Butterfly” in Botswana.

Typical of many opera directors trained in the theater, Alexandra Liedtke seems to have limited understanding of Saint-Saëns’ music and even less about Lemaire’s libretto. As is often the case when a regisseur feels their genius may be unappreciated, Liedtke chose to project some gratuitous quotes onto the proscenium scrim before each Act as a kind of literary justification for the spurious staging to come. In deference to the city of Freud, Liedtke’s first choice was an epithet from the pioneer of psychoanalysis about life being tough. Nothing to quibble about there. The second was a quote from the Book of Judges 16:5 related to Dalila’s griping about trying three times to unsuccessfully wrest the secret of Samson’s strength from him. This was also the only non-textual biblical reference in the whole production. The final words of wisdom came from David Grossman. According to the program notes, the prolific Israeli author’s book “Lion’s Honey – The Myth of Samson” had a big influence on Liedtke’s conceptualization of the hirsute hero – which explains why this Samson was a modern-day suicide bomber rather than a 12th century BC muscle-machine wreaking God’s vengeance.

Where Are We And What Is This? 

Presumably set designer Raimund Orfeo Voigt never saw the “Illustrated Children’s Bible” when an infant doodler. The first scene is supposed to be a square in Gaza three millennia before Hamas but on the basis of Su Bühler’s costumes, could have been from Edwardian nowhere to the Warsaw ghetto after the 1943 uprising. The only addition to the bare stage was a low-sloped ramp, presumably leading to the unseen temple of Dagon. The motley crowd of cowering cloth-capped Hebrews showed their jaundice with Jehovah by ripping out pages of what could have been the Torah or for that matter, pocket editions of “Ben-Hur.” Befitting a former busker and cabaret singer, Roberto Alagna’s Samson appeared with bouffant blow-dried locks more like a boy-band leader than serial lion-killer and invincible scourge of the Dagonites. Liedtke ignored the text outright as during Samson’s exhortation to the recalcitrant Hebrews to humble themselves “aux genoux,” they all stood up. Dalila sauntered down the ramp as if on a Gaza Fashion Week catwalk and the priestesses looked more nurturing than nubile. Perhaps foreshadowing Samon’s own fate, the Old Hebrew was blind so he couldn’t possibly be offended by the dance of the Priestesses, which in any case was about as erotic as a Senior Citizens’ calisthenics class.

Dalila’s sex pit in Elysian Sorek made use of a revolving stage divided into two narrow brightly lit lift shafts before pirouetting into a spacious bathroom furnished with a few Biedermeier-inspired chairs. Samson hurled one off the set, which came dangerously close to falling into the orchestra pit. The salle de bain was memorable for a white enamel deco bathtub in the middle of the room with actual running water, which the sparring protagonists splashed over each other like cantankerous children. Roof-tilers in 1100 BC Sorek must have been particularly inept, as during the thunderstorm, water poured through the ceiling in torrents. The libretto states that once Dalila has weaseled the secret of Samson’s strength out of him, she screams “À moi! Philistins! À moi.” The soliders, who are concealed close by, should rush in, capture the shorn libidinous lothario and gouge his eyes out. In this case, only the High Priest appeared, nonchalantly smoking a cigar and sneering at Samson, who was looking justifiably peeved, not to mention soaked to the skin. Dalila didn’t do a scalp job on Samson’s lustrous locks but merely snipped off a few strands in the manner of Bellatrix Lestrange picking up ingredients for a polyjuice potion.

Samson’s dungeon was a cross between “Fight Club” and a louche 1920s Berlin kneipe without a following scene shift to the interior of the temple. There was a raised stage in the center akin to a rope-less boxing ring with a lot of IKEA arm-chairs placed around it. Samson was not in chains and pushing a mill-wheel as specified, but merely staggered around sightless to the amusement of the posturing Philistines, many of whom were in evening dress and swilling champagne. The Bacchanal was a semi-homoerotic caper involving a doppelgänger Samson who appeared on the nightclub stage to be physically poked and parodied. The real Herculean hero merely lay on the floor presumably enjoying the music instead of being lead in by a boy after the orgiastic fun had petered out. Samson asks the lad to take him “Vers les piliers de marbre,” but the pillars don’t exist. Instead, the doppelgänger came back to self-immolate before igniting a few jets of flames around the set, presumably destroying the tabernacle by explosives and immolating 3,000 Philistines in tuxedos.  It was as if Liedtke had mistaken “Samson et Dalila” for “Götterdämmerung.”

Admittedly, Some Solid Ideas Amid the Chaos

The Dortmund-born director took innumerable liberties with the libretto, but admittedly had a few interesting ideas. There was an ambiguous sexual frisson between Dalila and the High Priest in Act two and the alpha seductress later displayed some sympathy for the physically broken Samson, which is indeed echoed in the orchestration. “Laise moi prendre ta main” actually seemed sincere and not drenched in sarcasm.  She also declined to slit Samson’s throat when offered the ceremonial dagger by the High Priest. That said, the stage blocking was random in the extreme with people walking on and off the set for no particular purpose and individual characterization never rose above the banal.

Fortunately, the musical aspect of the performance was much less contentious.  The chorus of chronically miserable Hebrews was impressive, although the à capella plainchant “Hyme de joie” was anything but cheerful. This had more to do with Saint-Saëns curiously somber scoring than any lack of elation. The generally puffed-up Philistines were similarly vocally strong with appropriate bombast during “Gloire à Dagon” before being toasted in the terrorist attack. In the small role of Abimélech, Romanian bass Sorin Coliban displayed fine resonance and solid projection, although his physical similarity to Herman Gottlieb in “A Night at the Opera” was less than felicitous. Directed to enter four scenes early and then condemned to shuffle around the stage for no apparent reason, the Old Hebrew was sung by Dan Paul Dumitrescu who was dramatically distant and vocally undistinguished. Lower register notes such as the G natural on “Il nous frappit sa colère” and E natural on “Qui consume les os” disappeared into the Diaspora and Dumitrescu’s diction was imprecise.

Celebrated Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez had totally different diction problems. Rolled Italianate ‘r’s’ are fine for Gérard in “Andrea Chénier,” but unidiomatic for the fearsome francophone High Priest of Dagon. Furthermore, Liedtke’s direction made the choleric cleric closer to a cigar-chomping sleazy Mafioso capo. Vocally Álvarez was prone to ranting rather than refined vocalization although there was improved legato in the “Viens, Dalila, render grace à nos dieux” maestoso passage.

Gorgeous Voice Overshadowed By Poor Direction

By any estimation, Elīna Garanča is a consummate singer. The Latvian mezzo has an inherently lustrous timbre and absolutely flawless breath control. In “Samson et Dalila” the femme fatale gets three of the most marvelous arias ever written for mezzo and there were high expectations of this role debut in Das Haus am Ring. Surprisingly, Garanča’s performance was for the most part par-boiled.  Perhaps the problem was genetic Baltic bashfulness or a generally detached demeanor. Possibly Marco Armiliato’s torpid tempi in the set pieces, especially in “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (which is marked andantino) doused the fire. The most obvious explanation, however, is that Liedtke’s sanitized direction made the sultry sex kitten closer to Elsa than Ortrud and although Garanča’s drop-dead gorgeous looks would have weakened the resolve of any mere mortal, not to mention a testosterone-fueled knuckle-head like Samson, the essential elements of blinding hatred and psychopathic vengeance had vaporized.  Despite occasional beryline basilisk eye scowling, Garanča seemed closer to lovable Liù than tyrannical Turandot. “Verse-moi, verse-moi l’ivresse!” had the sensuality of a celibate suffragette. Although her mid-voice revealed creamy caramel colorings, the lower tessitura such as the B natural on “retour” in “Printemps qui commence” and deep A flat on “mes efforts” in “Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse!” lacked booming contra-bassoon blast.  The Act two aria was the best of the three with the top G scale to low B flat on “Je le brave” being particularly impressive. The fioratura semiquaver scale after “sa puissance” in the final scene was also stellar. Garanča’s upper range, however, was even more remarkable with an absolutely killer B flat fermata on “Lâche!” when she had snared Samson’s secret. There was another on “Ah” at the climactic conclusion but it was understandably swamped by the shrieking Philistines.

The Star of the Night

Top billing in “Samson et Dalila” goes to the tenor and although lacking the vocal weight of great interpreters of the role, Roberto Alagna’s lighter, crisp, forward-placed tenor had much to commend it. Although slightly more variation in color would have been welcome, there was a real ping in the upper register with some absolutely clarion top notes. The opening A flat fermata on “dieu d’Israël” immediately testified to a rock-solid technique and subsequent legato passages, such as “Seigneur, inspire-moi” were beautifully phrased. Although the vocal line is peppered with lots of high G naturals, the exposed top B flats such as “Lève toi!,” “Je t’aime” and a trumpeted “Traison!” were riveting. The final B flat on “en les écrasant en ce lieu!” would have brought the house down if it hadn’t already been detonated with explosives.

“Samson et Dalila” was originally shunned in Paris because of Saint-Saëns reputation as a symphonist rather than composer of operas in the tradition of Berlioz or Meyerbeer. Unsurprisingly the orchestral partitura is particularly rich and the renowned Viennese musicians, under the direction of Marco Armiliato, brought out the intensely lyrical and rhythmic nuances with poetry and panache. Even the castanets in the Bacchanal sounded classy. There was some especially fine flute playing in “Voici le printemps” and when not producing orgasmic string sonorities, such as the instrumental punctuations in “Printemps qui commence” or taking up the melodic line in Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” the violins were also pungent, such as the biting dotted marcato accompaniment to “Oui, déjà, par tois fois.” Despite Armiliato’s periodic ponderous tempi, there was plenty of puissance when required and the Bacchanal was wild and raucous.

This was a performance in which Roberto Alagna erased all memories of the “Aida” debacle at La Scala in 2006 and re-affirmed his stature as one of today’s most important singers. It also suggested that when staging “Samson et Delila” next time, Alexandra Liedtke could be better guided by reading less Grossman and more Old Testament.


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