Samson et Dalila Shimmers at San Diego Opera

When it comes to Samson et Dalila, one often thinks in terms of biblical drama. I suspect its French composer, Camille Saint-Saëns, and librettist Ferdinand Lemaire, might have had something sexier in mind. Last night’s San Diego Opera production, which served up an extravagantly sensual Valentine-weekend feast, confirmed my suspicions.

With Delilah’s voluptuous first-act aria, Printemps qui commence and her Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix in the luscious second act love duet, this 1877 work stands together with Bizet’s Carmen, which opened only two years before, to define sensuality in the French opera repertoire. Pleasures of the senses aside, however, Samson’s premiere took place in Weimar, with a German translation, largely due to the efforts of Franz Liszt, who was one of the composer’s chief promoters. Saint-Saëns had become discouraged at the French public’s unfavorable response to the staging of a biblical-themed story, and in 1870 had abandoned any thought of completing the opera. But Liszt, who was as committed to advancing the work of talented new composers as Leonard Bernstein had been in the twentieth century, persuaded Saint-Saëns to finish his opera and sponsored the premiere at Weimar’s Grand Ducal Theater.

Mezzo soprano Nadia Krasteva is Delilah in San Diego Opera's SAMSON AND DELILAH. Photo by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz.
Mezzo soprano Nadia Krasteva is Delilah in San Diego Opera’s SAMSON AND DELILAH. Photo by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz.

The opera was a huge success, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that it received its due, with revivals in Germany and France, finally achieving recognition on the Paris Opéra stage in 1892, under the composer’s supervision. Soon after, it debuted in England and Italy, and in New York: first at Carnegie Hall in 1892 and at the Met in 1895. Since then Samson, Saint-Saëns’ only popular opera, has been regularly performed and recorded.

In SDO’s production, Douglas Schmidt’s splendid San Francisco Opera sets, Carrie Robbins’s sexy costumes, and a handsome young cast, including a Delilah whose dance moves defied usual stereotypes of voluptuous opera sopranos, all intermingled beautifully to play up the steamier aspects of Saint-Saëns’ score in Director Lesley Koenig’s interpretation of the work.

The role of Dalila has been an ultimate star vehicle for mezzo-sopranos over the past century. Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva’s fiery performance as the temptress fully aware of her powers displayed an entire constellation of vocal beauty, sensuality, and acting prowess. Integrating Krasteva’s astonishingly flexible body movements into the mix added a whole new dimension to this character, with nuances of grace and subtlety that have rarely emerged in traditional portrayals of Delilah as a merciless, conniving woman bent on revenge. Most impressive of all, Krasteva’s voice, a perfect mélange of expansive range, lush tones and agility, made hers a stunning SDO debut.

Tenor Clifton Forbis, who has appeared in such roles as Tristan, Otello, Siegmund and Don José in opera houses from Chicago and New York to Milan, Paris and Vienna, recreated his 2007 SDO debut role as the vulnerable, all-too human hero Samson. His penetrating voice showed versatility, color and strength, and he handled the strenuous tessitura with admirable fortitude. The emotional heft of the Act Three monologue provided his opportunity to shine vocally and dramatically.

Tenor Clifton Forbis is Samson in San Diego Opera's SAMSON AND DELILAH. Photo by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz.
Tenor Clifton Forbis is Samson in San Diego Opera’s SAMSON AND DELILAH. Photo by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz.

In his SDO debut, American baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi demonstrated both power and sensuality as the High Priest. His repertoire, performed in numerous major opera houses worldwide, forms an impressive list of the most formidable baritone roles, among them Amonasro, Jochanaan, Simon Boccanegra and Iago. The muscle behind the voice in last night’s performance was well controlled, allowing subtle hints of sensory desire to shine through.

American bass Gregory Reinhart, in his SDO debut as the Old Hebrew, admirably plumbed the depths of the difficult low register required in this role. He and Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov (Abimelech) rounded out a strong supporting cast that included Greg Fedderly as the Philistine Messenger, and Doug Jones and Scott Sikon as the First and Second Philistines. Charles Prestinari’s excellent chorus was shown off to great advantage in the monumental set pieces.

SDO Resident Conductor Karen Keltner made a welcome return after her absence last season. Her vast repertoire comprises a wealth of French opera, including Faust, La Bohème, Carmen and many others, and her refined, sensitive conducting in Samson reflected a great affinity for the subtleties of the French style. She handled the delicate balance between orchestra, chorus and soloists superbly, never letting the thick orchestration cover the singers, and allowing the sweetly played violin solos to shine through.

A scene from the 3rd Act ballet in in San Diego Opera's SAMSON AND DELILAH. Photo by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
A scene from the 3rd Act ballet in in San Diego Opera’s SAMSON AND DELILAH. Photo by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz

With her debut here in La Bohème in 1995, and 1998 return for Le Nozze di Figaro, Director Lesley Koenig has become a familiar presence at SDO. Her immense experience in the opera world, initiated at the tender age of seventeen, has served her well in this Samson. In her recent OperaPulse interview Ms. Koenig expressed her objective to emphasize different elements from her previous Samson productions, such as including the High Priest in a sensual triangle that added to the pent-up, unbridled desire pulsing between Samson and Delilah. She  kept the sets and props clean and simple in favor of accentuating the lighting, and integrated the dance organically into the story, thus creating an atmosphere of magical sensuality. Having Samson’s hair shorn in full view of the audience was an unanticipated and creative change from tradition, and the hints of lust revealed in the High Priest’s final leave taking of Delilah in Act Two were both  shocking and subtle.

Since his debut designing Norma in 2003, Gary Marder has lit the SDO stage in several other challenging operas. His lighting in Samson, a marvel of subtlety, allowed the compelling portrayals of the characters to shine through. The cloudless azure sky of Act One contrasted strikingly with Delilah’s seductive, shimmering candlelit boudoir of the second act and harsh red glow of the final temple scene. Carrie Robbins’ costumes were sexy without being racy, playing up the contrast between the oppressed Hebrews and their ephemeral, fleeting pleasure-seeking Philistine captors. The vibrant colors meshed perfectly with Douglas Schmidt’s gorgeous sets, which varied from stately and majestic to lush and sensuous, finally sinking into total hedonism.

After a stellar dancing career, Kenneth von Heidecke went on to choreograph ballet and opera in the US and Europe and founded the celebrated Von Heidecke Chicago Festival Ballet. His marvelous work has graced SDO’s stage since his debut production of Romeo et Juliette in 1998. Last night’s handsome choreography emphasized classical elements, yet still evoked an atmosphere of sybaritic, pre-Christian pagan excess, thus epitomizing Ms. Koenig’s aim to seamlessly meld dance with story. Delilah wields her power from the very first moment through the dancers, who entangle Samson in their scarves: a symbolic net from which he is powerless to escape.

SDO’s Samson et Dalila gives San Diego opera lovers a Valentine’s Day gift that will last far beyond the usual chocolates and roses: an evening of love and passion embodied in great story, haunting music, and memorable singing.

Vive l’amour!