What a marvelous melange is Virginia Opera’s Samson and Delilah! I sometimes wonder how audiences viewed an opera, or painting, or about any other work of art, at the time of its premiere. Remember that in 1877 when Samson and Delilah premiered, movies, television, color photography, radio, stereos, hi-fi speakers, Playboy magazine, personal computers, the internet, streaming video, Kindles, and iPhones had not yet been invented, and Alexa and Siri were yet to speak. Think what we are exposed to today that those audiences had not. Think what exposure to stimuli does to our nervous system and thought processes and sensitivities. If you are a wine connoisseur it will take a much better wine to excite you than if you are a wine novice. If you had only heard church hymns and Christmas carols, how would you react to rock music and gangsta rap? If you had only been exposed to the faces, hands, and feet of other humans in public, how would you react to performers on stage who leave little to the imagination. I won’t say that our senses have been dulled, because that is pejorative; a wine connoisseur’s senses have been sharpened, not dulled, but I will contend that our senses have been modified, and so have our expectations. Virginia Opera’s production of Samson and Delilah moved through time as it progressed. An 1877 audience likely would have been enthralled by act one, thrilled by act two, and outraged by act three; harm would have been done to the theater and the composer chased out of town. We, however, unavoidably live in 2017; it takes more complexity, skin exposure, and volume to satisfy us.
I was attentive in act one, engaged by act two, and entertained by act three. I suspect if I had seen the opera in the 1930s, I would have been engaged, entertained, and a little shocked. In fact, Virginia Opera chose to place composer Camille Saint-Saens' and librettist Ferdinand Lemaire’s Samson and Delilah in a 1930s setting. I suppose that Director Paul Curran felt that today’s audiences might find Nazi-style occupation more relevant than that by the Philistines in biblical times, but that created certain inconsistencies, such as using swords, not guns, and worshiping the god, Dacon in the 1930s. It didn’t really work for me and seemed to rule out the use of color in act one. The stage was rather dark most of the opera with two simple sets and I never figured out Samson’s costume; perhaps his tunic had religious significance, but from the rear balcony it just looked an off white tunic. Lighting effects came and went as obvious add-ons, and the strobe effect for the denouement between Samson and Delilah made it almost impossible to see the two performers; for me it detracted from, rather than enhanced, the tension. Better staged it could have been. To continue in a critical vein, I even have a bone to pick with Saint-Saens and Lemaire: Samson is a tenor? Really?! Also, the opera was unbalanced; it needs a steamy scene at the beginning to make us feel Samson’s attraction to Delilah. And some of the music did not fit what the libretto was expressing; the music for an aria in act two when Delilah was expressing how she was going to bring Samson down sounded like she was singing a sweet love song about him. Here’s my quick overview: Act one felt more like a narration than a drama acted out. Act two was strong, a fine, engaging opera, even a little titillating. Act three was quite racy and a little over the top, but entertaining it was, and it sent everyone home happy. And in the end, Samson brought down the house, and those sinful, oppressive Philistines, got their just desserts. All’s well that ends well.
This production has an excellent cast of singers and their accompaniment by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra directed by Adam Turner is a special treat. I liked the Saint-Saens’ music and several of the arias are especially beautiful. I found myself wanting to observe the action on the stage, listen to the singing, and listen to Saint-Saens music as separate activities, and found myself switching back and forth. Katharine Goeldner, as Delilah, has a lovely mezzo soprano voice; her act two aria, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” was beautiful and touching. Tenor Derek Taylor’s acting was not always convincing and his Samson did not seem like a feared strong-man. However, the power and handsomeness of his voice really shone in his mill scene aria expressing his sorrow at having disobeyed God. The other singers performed well. I will only single out Michael Chioldi who was the High Priest; he was convincing and his voice commanded the stage. His sensuous scenes in Act 2 with Delilah were a highlight of the opera.
Prior to attending this opera, I had read a series of blog posts on Samson and Delilah by Dr. Glenn Winters, Community Outreach Musical Director for Virginia Opera, which delve into the events of Saint-Saens' life and probable psychological reasons that influenced the composer to select this biblical story for his opera. Now that’s a story someone should write an opera about!
So, while there are some things I don’t care for in this opera and in the Virginia Opera production, there is also much that I liked, and some that I loved. As for whether you should attend, I give it a strong thumbs-up. You will have the rare opportunity to sample Saint-Saens’ opera, experience some beautiful music and singing by excellent performers, and be entertained. That’s a good deal.
The Fan Experience: There are two remaining performances on October 13 and 15 in Richmond. in Richmond’s Dominion Arts Center which is in a downtown business area; it has both street parking and lots close by, priced moderately. Tickets range from $20 to $120 and are available in all price tiers. Looking around the Performing Arts Center at George Mason University, it appeared only about 70% full; I thought the production deserved a much stronger turnout. My appreciation for Virginia Opera continues to grow. It takes courage in these times to present operas that are not in the top ten. It also takes a commitment to provide their audience with variety as well as excellence in opera. I, for one, applaud them and encourage them to continue.