The Barber of Seville she ain’t. Delila gives Samson a trim in Covent Garden.
No one should have expected The Royal Opera’s new staging of Saint-Saëns’ biblical epic to be a Cecil B DeMille ‘toga and sandals’ extravaganza, given that it was intrusted to that doyen of British opera directors, Richard Jones. Reports from the first night suggest some audience members weren’t happy with the striking visual aesthetic he and his ingenious designer Hyemi Shin brought to the proceedings, but at this second performance the Sunday matinee crowd lapped it up enthusiastically – and with good reason.
All the hallmarks of Jones’ very individual but ultimately rewarding directorial interventions were present – and having been bitterly disappointed by his staging of The Valkyrie down the road, it came as a relief to see him firing on all cylinders once again. Opting for a timeless, vaguely contemporary setting, he and his collaborators’ retelling of the Samson and Delilah story had visceral power, the ability to shock and certainly packed a theatrical punch.
For an opera mired in historical nostalgia this was no mean feat. But by creating a succession of arresting visual tableaux that were both intriguing and illuminating, the team has managed to breathe new life into an opera that can often come across as a fusty old relic of a bygone age. Focusing on the importance of relationships – with each another and within wider society – Jones invites us to question where our loyalties lie within this framework. He never presents the characters as black and white – even the so-called hero, Samson, is flawed. And what motivates Dalila to betray him? Revenge or financial reward, or maybe a combination of the two? We’re never encouraged to take sides – and it’s this ambiguity that makes this staging so rewarding as a theatrical experience. Lucy Burge’s vivacious choreography – the line dancing Bacchanale was an absolute hoot – and Nicky Gillibrand’s gaudy costumes, add nicely to the overall exuberance of the production.
“…the Sunday matinee crowd lapped it up enthusiastically…”
Musically, it’s highly accomplished as well. It was a shame that the originally announced Samson, Scottish tenor Nicky Spence, had to withdraw following a serious accident earlier in the year, but his replacement, SeokJong Baek, was nothing short of sensational. Not only was this the young Korean tenor’s debut in the role, but it was also his first professional operatic engagement as a tenor, having originally trained as a baritone. He commanded the stage with ease and produced plenty of heroic tone yet wasn’t afraid to hone his voice down to a barely audible mezza voce whisper when required. This was an auspicious debut and a canny piece of casting on the company’s part.
As Dalila, Elīna Garanča proved why she is the go-to artist for this role these days – indeed this was her fourth staging in which she’s appeared recently – as it plays to her prodigious talents. Not only is she a natural stage animal, but her smoky, luxurious mezzo fits Saint-Saëns’ ravishing vocal lines like a glove. Beguiling in ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à toi voix’ and hair-raising when rejecting her lover, her portrayal of Dalila was as complete as you’re likely to experience today.
As has been the case all season, the supporting cast assembled here was first rate. Baritone Lukasz Goliński was a forthright, threatening High Priest, sung, and acted with implacable menace, while Blaise Malaba added yet another vivid character, this time Abimélech, to his growing list of exceptionally well-sung comprimario roles for the company.
With William Spaulding’s all-singing, all-dancing augmented chorus making light of the intricate choral writing, and in the process making a mighty wall of sound, and Antonio Pappano leading a detailed, lovingly sculptured account of the score, this was an afternoon of inordinate musical pleasures. And needless to say – the orchestra played like lions, relishing in Saint-Saëns’ heady orchestration.
In what has been an exceptional season for The Royal Opera, this staging of Samson et Dalila has provided the company with yet another sure-fire hit, and we can’t wait to see it again.
• Further information on future performances can be found here.