NEW YORK—In 2010, The Metropolitan Opera presented a new production of Bizet’s “Carmen” starring Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna, and the pair created a sensation as the tempestuous couple. For the first production of the 2018–2019 season, they are reunited in “Samson et Dalila,” another French opera about a lovelorn military man falling for a deceitful seductress.
Directed by Darko Tresnjak (who is best known for the Broadway musical “A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder”), with orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder, Saint-Saëns’s opera is not on the same level as Bizet’s, but the two leads still smolder on stage and the kitschy production is quite entertaining.
The biblical tale takes place in Gaza in 1150 B.C. The Israelites are going through a rough period, on the wrong side of Jehovah and enslaved by the Philistines. Samson, the hero of the Israelites, appears, advising his people to bless their God. The Satrap (the provincial governor) of Gaza enters, demanding tribute and taunting the oppressed people with the boast that his god (Dagon) is better than theirs. Samson starts a revolt during which he kills the Satrap.
Immediately after the Israelites’ victory, a number of Philistine women bring garlands of flowers for Samson and his people. Among them is the beautiful Dalila, who wants to rekindle her romance with Samson.
The second act takes place in Dalila’s home. The high priest offers her wealth if she helps capture Samson. She is not interested in money, but she has the same goal as the priest. Dalila wants to punish the strong man for rejecting her some time earlier.
Samson arrives and admits he still carries the torch for the temptress even though he has sworn to act as the leader of his people. She reminisces about the good times they once had, and he quickly disavows God for his earthly goddess.
Dalila demands as proof of his love that he reveal the secret of his strength. After some internal turmoil, Samson divulges his secret. He is immediately captured by Philistine soldiers. Samson, a strong man but not a deep thinker, realizes he has been betrayed.
The last act begins with Samson, blinded and in chains in his prison cell. He prays to God to spare his people and just punish him.
The Philistines carry on an elaborate celebration of Dagon in their god’s temple. Samson is brought in and humiliated by the high priest and then by Dalila. After they mock Jehovah, the fallen hero begs God for one more bout of strength. Jehovah grants it, and Samson pulls down the pillars of the temple.
The Performance of ‘Samson et Dalila’
Saint-Saëns originally planned “Samson et Dalila” as an oratorio, and the first act certainly seems like one. The emergence of the hero and the ensuing revolt are accomplished with very little onstage action. The enslaved chorus does a lot of the singing, and the company is up to its usual high standards.
The two leads are an attractive pair; they are pasted on billboards all over the city and broadcast on television. Of course, they are both powerful singers. Garanca has a plush mezzo-soprano voice, and all of its beauty and her smooth technique are in evidence in her seductive “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart at thy sweet voice”). It is understandable that Samson’s resolve evaporates right afterward. This is the most famous aria in the opera, and her rendition brought the house down.
Alagna looks and sounds remarkably young for a 55-year-old. He was quite moving in his third act aria, “Vois ma misère, hélas!” (“See my misery, alas!”) when he is blinded and in chains. Unfortunately, his voice cracked on the last high note in the opera, but the rest of the performance did him credit.
Bass-baritone Laurent Naouri is excellent as the high priest; his Act 2 scene with Dalila is exciting.
Sir Mark Elder led a graceful performance. Alexander Dodge’s set evokes Moorish architecture, while Linda Cho’s costumes suggest that it was more fun (or at least more colorful) to be a Philistine than an Israelite. Then again, it makes sense for the captors to have better clothes than those they vanquish.
The Bacchanale ballet, with its incorporation of Middle Eastern sounds, is one of the highlights of the score. Austin McCormick’s choreography seems a mix of Hollywood and Las Vegas. It’s well performed but a bit out of place even in an opera that lends itself to kitsch.
Tresnjak’s direction does not solve the dramatic problems of this opera, but apparently no one else has either. The charismatic leads, one gorgeous aria, and a spectacular ending are the main attractions.
On March 13, 2019, the cast will change with Anita Rachvelishvili playing Dalila and Aleksandrs Antonenko playing Samson.
‘Samson et Dalila’
The Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Running Time: 3 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Closes: March 28
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.