Philistine, moi?

OPERA: Samson et Dalila; Edinburgh Festival Theatre
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Because of the popularity of Delilah's "Mon cur s'ouvre a ta voix", Saint-Saens's biblical opera is widely thought of as an orgy of sensuality. It is nothing of the kind. With the composer's extraordinary ear for every kind of music - the score virtually quotes Wagner, Berlioz, Gounod and Mendelssohn - the work is a fabulously rich amalgam of earnest drama, near-oratorio and sublime lyricism.

Scottish Opera, in its new production, has decided to ignore the popular view and go for high drama and musical breadth. Antony McDonald is chiefly known as a designer, but here acted as producer as well; paradoxically, his hand was chiefly visible in the formal and balletic movements of both chorus and principals, played out in sets that were rudimentary, merely oblique platforms with a distant view of a starry sky or of the Negev desert, lit with pinkish side-lights by Wolfgang Gobbel. McDonald visualised the Jews as Polish victims of the Holocaust, mocked and ridiculed by an Abimelech (the warm and virile Christopher Purves) dressed like a Nazi brownshirt. The initial image was telling: rows of sleeping Jews in a bare hall, reminiscent of Auschwitz. Neither of the notorious coups de theatre - the cutting of Samson's hair, the destruction of the temple - was seen on stage.

McDonald has the right cast for this conception. His Samson is Mark Lundberg, an immense tenor with one of those smoky, husky voices, baritonal in everything but range, fathomless in expressive depth. Robert Hayward is a young-looking High Priest, with a black, high-calibre bass-baritone that leaves you feeling like you've been hit by a tank. Above all, Delilah herself (Carolyn Sebron) is not the remotest bit seductive. This magnificent singer, with her stately presence and commanding gestures, sees the role as a relentless narrative of hatred and revenge. Her voice has edge and colour and she phrases rhetorically, expansively, never descending to mere sensuality. Samson is a fool to overlook the steel in her tone, even when she is declaring love and fidelity.

Perhaps the best stroke was to appoint a conductor, Frederic Chaslin, who not only imposes his grand vision on every aspect of the performance, but also sees the score as an essentially musical sequence, rather than a mere accompaniment to stage action. Stern counterpoint, fragrant hymnody, symphonic density are cherished and moulded, placing the work on the borderline of opera and symphony. And when the composer allows himself a moment of lyric beauty, space and sunlight open up around it, allowing the singers every luxury of projection and sostenuto.

There are errors of taste. The ballet music in Act 3 accompanies an incoherent, slightly salacious tableau of stage business, and the Philistine women, dressed in the fashions of 1900, show their legs like street-corner tarts. But all in all, this production is a triumph. It overcomes cliche at every turn, revealing the work as a rare masterpiece.

Edinburgh Festival Theatre tonight (0131 529 6000) and on tour

Raymond Monelle