The composer first conceived the piece as an oratorio, which is how Victorian London first heard the piece in 1893: no Biblical stories on stage please, we're British. McDonald seems to bear in mind that potential to be oratorio, particularly in the way he handles the chorus as a massive physical structure. Indeed as the curtain rises we seem to be looking at a dark and rock-strewn landscape, and it's only as the eyes find their focus that we realise that these rocks are, in fact, bodies: dead, sleeping, we can't yet tell. Then as they begin to sing, they slowly rise, presenting their bodies, and their prayers, to some distant god.
These are Saint-Saens's Hebrews, a rejected race from Mitteleuropa clinging desperately to their holy books - their only protection, and a pretty feeble one, against their enemies. No surprise that McDonald, who provides his own designs, has these Philistines as jack-booted fascists, but this isn't a production that simply replaces superannuated fancy-dress with easy "relevance". As the opera progresses, the Philistines become more and more sinister, while their actions, and their costumes, move in ever more weird directions. The effect is genuinely disturbing.
McDonald is best known as a designer, and his work with Tim Albery (Les Troyens for Scottish Opera, Peter Grimes for English National Opera, Cherubin for the Royal Opera) has provided some of Britain's most memorable productions of the 1990s. This Samson et Dalila isn't quite in that class, but it's imaginative and uncluttered. The stage is raked at an angle just steep enough to suggest danger without causing damage to the singers, and a receding set of tilting frames hems the action in, while providing glimpses of other worlds: a celestial starscape in Act One, an arid desert for Act Two.
Then Act Three opens with Samson in prison, framed behind a scrim by a tiny rectangle of light, while the unseen chorus of his fellow Hebrews mutters disconsolately from somewhere behind him. The effect is to focus all the more intimately on his agony as, blinded and shorn of these mighty locks, he all but demands that God explain himself. The links with Christ's messianic agonies are explicit, here and elsewhere, and they make sense.
Finally, for the climactic bacchanale, all hell breaks loose as the Philistines' victory feast becomes, in Philippe Giraudeau's elaborate choreography, a savage rite for some monstrously perverted cult. A slaughtered horse hangs with its throat cut, blood draining into a ceremonial dish while all around the orgiasts cavort with bloodthirsty glee, some of them taunting Samson with images of pigs while others cross-dress in wilful disregard of Old Testament custom. Over the top? You bet, but gleefully so, and to thrilling effect. The intensity becomes almost unbearable when the chorus turns to face the audience, bellowing at us disdainfully, pushing the soloists to ever more extreme vocal exertions.
An opera like Samson et Dalila only really works if we feel that the singers have been pushed to the edge, which this production manages triumphantly. Frederic Chaslin ensures that the orchestra gives solid support, with the horns delivering a particularly satisfying rasp, and the chorus too is in fine form, even if its movements occasionally looked over-prepared. Robert Hayward's High Priest, resonantly sung, is sinister and sadistic, and as bewitched by Dalila as Samson himself. And no wonder: as Dalila, Carolyn Sebron cuts an imposing figure, whether delirously licking blood off the High Priest's sacrificial dagger, or posing like a 1950s pin-up in an effort to catch Samson's eye. The voice has moments of both sweetness and richness, and though Sebron sometimes strains, so might any mezzo- soprano given the demands Saint-Saens makes.
But it's Mark Lundberg's Samson who pulls the show together. Remarkably, Lundberg has sung as a bass and as a baritone before now settling as a tenor. The voice retains plenty of baritonal weight lower down the register, allowing Lundberg to sing at top volumn without ever becoming crude, and only rarely do the top notes emerge constricted: but again, the part would torture all but the world's very finest. And in any case, given the choice between perfectly formed notes and overwhelming intensity, I'd go for the latter every time, and Lundberg's performance lacked nothing in that respect. He and Sebron seemed less comfortable with one another at ultra-close quarters, but with a few yards of stage space between them, the crackle of dramatic electricity was almost audible.
The evening made a telling contrast with the previous night's performance of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore at Covent Garden. John Copley's 1975 production, revived by Stuart Maunder, looks distinctly dated. Beni Montresor's designs make some points about the opera's artificiality by means of gaudy costumes and flats flying hither and yon at the slightest provocation, but this is culinary opera of a rather under-cooked kind, even though this staging seems infinitely revivable as a showcase for this or that superstar.
This time it was the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu who provided the raison d'etre, singing Adina with a ringing confidence that quite overwhelmed everything around her. Inasmuch as Donizetti makes Adina little more than a flighty, flirty flibbertigibbet, it's perhaps not surprising that Gheorghiu showed few signs of dramatic expressivity, but she still dominates the stage so that, with a little help from John Charlton's lightning, it becomes impossible to take your eyes off her. It's a big voice but one capable of the utmost delicacy, and not afraid to lay on a quite generous vibrato.
In the supporting cast, it was good to hear Deborah York making a very delicate fist of the small role of Giannetta, one of those "peasant girls" beloved of Italian bel canto operas: here's a singer who promises much for the future. In a different context, so might the Spanish tenor Jose Bros, but here his Nemorino seemed thin and rather small (though "tenorino" would be too cruel). Still he gave good shape to the showpiece aria, "Una furtiva lagrima" and was certainly preferable to Natale De Carolis's Belcore, sung here without charm, the lines emerging bluff and formless. On the other hand, Bruno Pola had all the bluster required to make Dulcamara a kind of bel canto Arthur Daley, dispensing dodgy remedies for non-existent ailments: he came closest to providing the kind of abrasive vulgarity the opera demands, while Evelino Pid conducted with ample grace.
A few days earlier, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Olga Borodina, two of the world's finest singers, failed to fill the Festival Hall for their concert with the English Chamber Orchestra under Patrick Summers. No doubt the combination of baritone and mezzo-soprano lacks the eclat of a tenor/soprano team, but these are two fine singers who should, I'd have thought, be able to fill the RFH several times over. There's not a lot of tonal variation in Hvorostovsky's voice, but his ability to thread the notes together in seemingly endless lines remains spectacular. In Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, he displayed a fine and subtly managed crescendo and, to be fair, there was proper melancholy in his timbre. Then in Figaro's "Lago al factotum" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, he proved an unexpectedly witty comic, enjoying himself immensely.
Borodina's voice is fuller, richer and louder than Hvorostovsky's, and she has minute control of its scale. Where Hvorostovsky sounds, quite legitimately, like a wire stretched to breaking point, Borodina has an easy plushness. That contrast helps the voices work together, so that the duets become the highlight of the show, notably Figaro and Rosina's from Il Barbiere. Indeed, although both paid due homage to the Russian repertoire (Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky), it was in Donizetti and Rossini that they were the most winning: a fact duly acknowledged by an adoring audience which, while it may not have filled the house, lacked nothing in enthusiasm.
'Samson et Dalila': Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000), Wed & Sat; then touring. 'L'Elisir d'Amore': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), Tues & Fri, to 9 May. Michael White returns next week.Reuse content