Samson et Dalila, Royal Opera House, London
Wednesday 17 March 2004
One opera that you can say with absolute confidence will always bring the house down is Samson et Dalila. No such luck with Elijah Moshinsky's frightful 23-year-old staging. It's high time the Royal Opera buried it with the Philistines. Its talking-point (and doubtless the reason for its conservation) has always been Sidney Nolan's designs. The Australian artist took his cues (not surprisingly) from primitive Aboriginal art - a gaudy succession of painted gauzes and tie-dyed raiments. It's a very orange show. The scenery, such as it is, now looks as though it has been hit by something above seven on the Richter scale. The children of Israel come at us with outstretched arms. "Deliver us from this débâcle," they seem to be saying. It's the show that time forgot.
If I were David Bintley, for instance, I would no longer wish to be held accountable for choreographing (if that's the word) the climactic orgy in the Temple of Dagon. Very Ali Baba. Is it possible we actually took this seriously back in 1981? I suppose back then the topless maidens were a distraction (I notice they've gone). Now the only real scandal is just how bad it is. At least the pulsing gyrations of Saint-Saëns's corny but vital bacchanal are in good hands. The young Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan - who made such an impact with Carmen at Glyndebourne two seasons back - is the best reason for braving this revival. His direction of the score is muscular and incisive, keen of rhythm and high on narrative drive. Heaven knows the staging needs all the help it can get in that regard. And when Saint-Saëns is at his most fragrant, Jordan is at his most attentive. The response he elicits from the Royal Opera violins in the soaring answering phrases of Dalila's entrance aria makes you fall in love with this score all over again.
So enter Dalila, in the voluptuous personage of Denyce Graves, who, if I'm not very much mistaken, is expecting a little Samson or Dalila (so a pregnant Dalila is acceptable at Covent Garden but not, it seems, a fat Ariadne - as Deborah Voigt recently found out to her cost). Graves has coveted this role in recent years, but the plummy tone and indomitable chest voice are now compromised by some bizarrely wayward intonation. It could be that her condition is affecting her support but sustaining pitch was definitely an issue on the first night. Then again, come the big number - "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" - she found security and rapture in the melody's soft embrace.
It has to be said that she and her Samson, José Cura, looked really comfortable with each other. The body language of their fateful tryst was the one great lie that the production made believable - her deceit, his desire. Cura looks great in the role - and he sounds pretty good, too. The swarthy complexion of the voice has always been his strong (to my mind his only) selling point. And that's what counts in this role - middle-voice masculinity. There really isn't much opportunity here for the kind of finessing that quickly finds Cura wanting. And there isn't much opportunity, either, for anyone but the title players to make much of an impression. Bruno Caproni did so as the High Priest of Dagon, and at least the chorus sounded impressive.
And so, finally, the pillars of the temple came toppling down. And what an anti-climax that was. For those of you who've never seen the show, it's also a terrible irony that the said pillars are not supporting anything in the first place. That just about sums it all up.
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