The return of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila ought to have been one of the highlights of the current Royal Opera season. The revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s popular production featured two of the (supposedly) greatest interpreters of the title roles of all time, the up-and-coming young conductor Philippe Jordan and the return of Moshinsky himself to supervise the rehearsals. Yet the safety of this line-up resulted in an emotionally dead performance of one of the greatest French operas of all time.
The problem was apparent from the opening bars. Although he shaped the music carefully, often producing sublime colours from the orchestra pit, Philippe Jordan failed to inspire the performers to bring out either the exoticism or the excitement of the score.
In the role of Dalila, Denyce Graves did not convince on any level. Especially disappointing in her famous love-song Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix (Softly awakes my heart), Graves is clearly no longer up to this taxing role on a vocal level; in the higher tessitura of the voice she no longer possesses the warmth of tone that was so impressive in her performances of Carmen at Covent Garden eleven years ago. Even more disappointing, however, was her inability to believably engage in the seduction of Samson. Graves is cold and distant where she ought to be darkly seductive: such a performance renders impossible the notion that Samson is overwhelmed with so much passion that he will reveal the secret of his strength.
As Samson, José Cura was also vocally disappointing. Although he was labelled as “the fourth tenor” a few years ago, Cura has lost the baritonal bloom in his voice that caused people to hail him as the heir to Plácido Domingo. In the first two acts the voice was particularly tight, although his performance in the final scene was more affecting. He excelled more as the blinded and humiliated Samson than as Samson “the people’s conqueror”. This was largely because he lacks the vocal thrills necessary to convince us that he is the leader of a vast tribe, whereas his vocal frailties seem appropriate for the character’s physical frailty in the final act.
The worst aspect of the evening, however, was the production. Sidney Nolan’s once-handsome sets are now creaking at the seams. In particular, Samson’s destruction of the temple in the final scene was pathetically staged, with only two pillars being knocked down. In the story this is supposed to kill all of Samson’s enemies, but they so obviously avoided the two columns that this potential coup de theatre left the audience more amused than horrified.
On the plus-side the chorus was in much better voice than it has been recently, and the Vilar Young Artist Andrew Kennedy was an impressive First Philistine. Hubert Francis made an imposing Messenger, but it’s a shame he shouted more than he sang. Conversely, Tigran Martirossian’s Abimelech and Bruno Caproni’s High Priest were very well-sung but dramatically detached from the rest of the performance. Elijah Moshinsky’s opera-direction is often unengaging, and this Samson was sadly no exception.
Surprisingly, the most enjoyable aspect of the evening was the least operatic. The famous Bacchanale in the final act featured choreography by David Bintley (Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet) and the participation of dancers from the Royal Ballet (Sian Murphy and the superb Thiago Soares). For once, the orchestra let rip and we were treated to a Rite of Spring-type ballet, imbued with the spirit of a pagan ritual. This excellent ballet sequence encapsulated what the atmosphere of the entire opera should have been, but failed to deliver.
After the strong casting, fine conducting and dramatic spark of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra a couple of weeks ago – also an Elijah Moshinsky revival – it’s a disappointment to report that all of these qualities were lacking in Samson et Dalila.