San Diego Opera’s lavish production of Camille Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah captures the spectacle and excitement of French grand opera at its best. At Saturday’s (Feb. 16) opening performance the audience relished the rousing choruses, vivid orchestral playing, opulent sets, and voluptuous dancing in the celebrated bacchanal.
We were moved by Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva as Delilah: her powerful, creamy, gorgeous voice and sensuous delivery of Saint-Saens’ lithe melodies for the Biblical seductress. I don’t recall a mezzo making such a striking San Diego Opera debut since Dolora Zajick first sang here in Il Trovatore in 1988.
But it was a chilly evening for romantic drama on the Civic Theatre stage, and not just because tenor Clifton Forbis’ Samson sounded tenuous when he should have been ardent. The composer and his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire did not imbue these two characters from the Book of Judges with any depth or clear individuality, so their big love scene—virtually all of Act II—does little to stir anyone’s pulse on stage or in the theatre.
Forbis and Krasteva went through the motions, and she delivered a melting “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” but it was difficult to feel much chemistry between them. I was surprised by the condition of Forbis’ voice. When I heard him sing this role at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006—the year before he sang it here for the first time—it had more body and I don’t recall the slight wobble in his highest range that proved so distracting on Saturday.
There were some compensations in the rest of the cast, however. American bass Gregory Reinhart rang out with compelling
authority and strength as the Old Hebrew who warns Samson of Delilah’s treachery, and Persian-American baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi put resonant fire into the cruel High Priest of Dagon. Neither has sung with San Diego Opera before, although Golesorkhi graduated from both the University of San Diego and San Diego State University.
For this opera, Chorus Master Charles F. Prestinari expanded the chorus to 80, and their sound filled the hall with rich, evenly-balanced sonorities. Saint-Saens originally conceived this work as an oratorio, and the warmth and passion of Prestinari’s chorus made a substantial contribution to the success of this production.
Lesley Koenig kept her traffic patterns simple with such a large cast on stage, although to distinguish Samson from the crowd of Israelites she sometimes had him standing away from them, as though he had been rejected by the people whose leader he was supposed to be. And did Koenig encourage Krasteva’s exaggerated gestures? At times I thought she had been studying acting from old silent movies.
If the frequently excerpted music of Saint-Saens’ bacchanal tempts choreographers to conjure the antics of Las Vegas chorines, I am happy to report that Kenneth von Heidecke took the high road. While the costumes—especially the guys’ costumes—may have raised an eyebrow or two, his bacchanal itself exhibited the judicious symmetry and balance of a modern dance piece.
Designer Douglas Schmidt imagined this opera on a grand scale, from the imposing columns of the temple of Dagon’s portico, to the billowing pavilion for the lovers’ tryst, to the gaudy, gilded temple interior that finally comes crashing down at the opera’s conclusion. Every detail sported exotic, ancient Middle Eastern motifs, and the imposing idol of Dagon was both marvelously and comically awe-inspiring. Carrie Robbins’ flowing costumes and especially her gem-studded armor for the priests of Dagon complemented Schmidt’s ethos.
A conductor partial to the French repertory, Karen Keltner drew impressive and spirited support in the pit, where much of the composer’s inspiration blossoms most rewardingly. [php snippet=1]
With the exception of Gounod’s Faust, French grand opera is given short shrift in most American houses. We can be grateful that San Diego Opera has presented two productions of Samson and Delilah over the last decade.
Tickets: 619.533.7000; www.sdopera.com