By ANDY GARRIGUE
With timeless themes of persecution, desire, betrayal and revenge, Camille Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah” has all the elements for wrenching drama, beguiling seduction and shocking violence that one could wish for in an opera.
Virginia Opera’s presentation of this biblical story recast in a more modern era at the Carpenter Theatre in the Dominion Arts Center on Friday evening ultimately delivers on this potential for visual spectacle, but takes a slow path to get there.
The curtain rises on a set dominated by a temple door of an epic scale, nearly three stories high. A crowd, shrouded in darkness, has gathered outside its doors, protesting their persecution. A leader emerges, urging those gathered to maintain their faith. It is Samson, a Hebrew of prodigious strength.
From the start, Derek Taylor as Samson exhibits a rich clear tenor with world-class power and masterfully controlled sustain. A Philistine, Abimelech, arrives, all arch-villainy, artfully wielding a cane, threatening the crowd, disrespectful of their heritage. Rubin Casas fills the role with charisma, his bass impressive and commanding. His mockery enrages Samson, and the tables are quickly turned.
This has the making of a great scene: an angry oppressed mob, hateful enemies, a murder to ensue, according to the program. But we are left with a sense of what might have been.
The stage remains mostly in muted darkness, movements are stylized and slow, and the murder, supposed to be at the hands of the herculean Samson, seems closer to a suicide by a man under a strange spell. Samson has exhibited no physical strength, but appears to have an ability to summon powers over people, an altogether different thing.
Delilah appears in the next scene, as the leader of a group of flirtatious mean girls, appearing to be wealthy socialites in fashionable dresses, sunglasses and stylish hats. Rather than exuding heat, as one might expect of a legendary temptress, Katharine Goeldner as Delilah is stately, detached and, as we will find out later, in fact, cold as ice.
With bull’s-eye pitch and exquisitely controlled dynamics, Goeldner’s voice shines throughout, with her upper register occasionally blasting through with great dramatic effect.
The second act boasts another impressive set on an epic scale. Delilah and the High Priest of Dagon plot the demise of Samson. Michael Chioldi as the Priest offers an earth-rumbling baritone with peals of power and an artist’s precision.
Two love scenes in the act are racy, bold, even shocking. The legendary haircut, when Samson loses his physical powers, however, is underwhelming.
The second scene of the third act, known as the Bacchanale, exponentially raises the visual aspect of the production. Saint-Saens’ beautiful score plays a starring role. Melodic, evocative, sweeping and complexly layered, the music takes an extended solo turn as wild decadence ensues, and later the outstanding chorus takes the music to even more breathtaking heights.
The entire stage is filled with cavorting, contorting and carousing bodies, with garters and fishnet stockings, boxer shorts and bare male torsos, ropes and chains all part of an excess of debauchery. Above it all, an aerialist in a “barely there” bedazzled bikini-style outfit assumes poses both captivating and hard to believe, and Marcy Richardson deserves a special bow for what she brings to this heart-stopping role.
The scene is Cirque du Soleil meets Cabaret meets Fellini, and it is unforgettable, a tour de force of imaginative choreography and visionary staging. Finishing strong with a sustained burst of energy, edge and vitality, this opera deserves to be seen for many reasons, but most especially for its overachieving, over-the-top conclusion.
The Virginia Opera opened its 43rd season Friday with a bold, artistic initiative – its first production of “Samson and Delilah.”
Composed by Camille Saint-Saëns with a libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire, it’s the only Saint-Saëns opera performed regularly. It is blessed with splendid moments but marred by long periods of dullness.
This production is somewhat tame, considering the sexual psychodrama of the Bible story about the downfall of a holy strongman who relents to an evil seductress. However, as a new addition to the company’s repertoire, “Samson and Delilah” is a must-see for opera lovers as well as kitsch lovers. It’s worth the ticket if only for its memorable two Delilah arias and its finale Bacchanale “dance” when the brazen women and half-naked boys of the Temple of Dagon get rowdy.
Preventing this biblical bodice-ripper from slipping into parody is conductor Adam Turner’s restrained and elegant approach to the score. At all times it is fun, and it sometimes is musically wonderful.
It is essentially a two-character work with a large chorus, so everything depends on the two leads. The title roles require a heroic tenor opposite a seductive mezzo-soprano, and in this production the two singers rise to all the key moments.
Katharine Goeldner, heard locally to good effect as Herodias in “Salome,”is a no-nonsense Delilah who goes directly for the kill and scores in two of the great arias of the mezzo-soprano repertoire. “Printemps qui commence” (“Spring Begins”) and “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” (“My heart opens itself to your voice”) are breathtaking lovely. Perhaps the French intonation could be improved and perhaps she has some trouble singing softly, but Goeldner delivers when it is most needed.
Derek Taylor, as Samson, embodies a soul-searching leader whose downfall is pitiable in his own realization of his weakness. He does much to inject a sense of emotional truth into the opera. Taylorscored locally last season as Calaf in “Turandot” and shows the verve, virile voice and good looks that are making him a force in American and European opera. His risk-taking here is more in the dramatic sphere than vocally. In the latter, he seemed at home.
The chorus is magnificent, proving that the long hours of rehearsal result in a power that demands respect.
Setting the proceedings in a 1930s Fascist German atmosphere is superfluous. It seems more an afterthought than a fresh concept. It’s true that the biblical setting can seem campy, but the more modern setting removes much of the primitive grandeur that is the opera’s true essence. The choice leaves costume designer Court Watson saddled with dour, dark colors, even though his assignment is awesomely realized in the cast of more than 50 people.
Driscoll Otto’s lighting is curiously dark and lacking in the contrast that could have made it dramatic. Staged almost entirely in semi-darkness, some audience members may wonder if they are going blind, or if someone didn’t pay the electric bill. When the aim was to isolate the leads out of the darkness, spotlights didn’t work.
Conductor Turner drives the production hard to overcome the rhythmically lax Act One, which is an outright bore up until Delilah’s entrance. He succeeds brilliantly with the delicate orchestration of the second act and the flamboyant Bacchanale of the third. Director Paul Curran, who also choreographed, presents an orgiastic romp that looks more rehearsed than wild. Still, it’s a true wake-up, and better realized than the collapse of the temple.
The supporting cast is fine. The baritone Michael Chioldi as the High Priest of Dagon has a powerful Act II show-down with Delilah and makes the character straightforward and unwavering. The bass-baritone Rubin Casas is tyrannical and brief as Abimalech. Stefan Szkafarowsky lends soul-searching concern to the role of the Old Hebrew.
Even with some reservations, I wouldn’t have missed this rare production. Virginia Opera is proving it is not dominated by stodgy programming.
by M.D. Ridge
March 18, 2017
Virginia Opera’s new production of “Turandot” at the Harrison Opera House is a treat for eye and ear, due in no small part to its brilliant director, Lillian Groag. Her inventive staging, costumes and set design bring out all the drama, passion and pageantry of the much-loved opera. Before the curtain even rises, the menacing executioner parades slowly across the apron, sword in hand, to behead a garish red and black mask – and you’re hooked.Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan sings the title role of the imperious Princess Turandot, daughter of the emperor of China. Any suitor who can’t answer her three riddles will be beheaded. Hogan’s voice is both powerful and musical; she makes believable the icy princess’s fear of losing herself in marriage.
Tenor Derek Taylor sings Calaf, who sees Turandot at the latest beheading and falls instantly in love with her. One wishes Taylor’s rather wooden acting matched his vocal passion, though his voice is sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra of Richmond Symphony players under the direction of conductor John DeMain.Ricardo Lugo’s huge bass perfectly fits Timur, the blind, banished king of Tartary and Calaf’s long-lost father. Virginia Beach native Danielle Pastin is Liu, the slave girl who has cared faithfully for Timur because of her unspoken love for Calaf.Liu’s passionate, beautifully sung refusal to betray Calaf and her unwavering loyalty and love in spite of torture is key to Turandot’s eventual change of heart. Ping (bass-baritone Keith Brown), Pang (tenor Ian McEuen) and Pong (the lively Joseph Gaines) are the court ministers who, tired of the endless bloodshed, reminisce about their peaceful homes and try to dissuade the determined Calaf from accepting Turandot’s deadly challenge. Groag gives the trio dimension as individuals as well as comic relief.Tenor John McGuire, of the Christopher Newport University music faculty, is an imposing but sympathetic Emperor who would like to address Calaf as his son instead of another sacrifice to Turandot’s fears. Baritone Andrew Paulson is the mysterious Mandarin.The large chorus, directed by Adam Bell, begins rather raggedly but soon gains cohesion. The pure voices of the Virginia Opera’s Children’s Chorus are a captivating counterpoint to the adults’ bloodshed.Kyle Lang’s unusual choreography, especially the executioner and her four dancers, provided an alien strangeness.Lighting designer Driscoll Otto’s projections – a ring of fire in the sky; the looming, cratered moon; the lapping waters of the blue lake at Ping’s faraway home, the starry night sky – together with Groag’s minimalist set and skillful direction give the Harrison’s restricted stage a sense of great space and wonder. Liu’s dead body lies bathed in blood-red light, from which she rises when the spirit of the Persian prince comes to lead her away; it’s extraordinarily effective.One simple but telling detail is the stripes of colored makeup in a band across the eyes from temple to temple, delineating caste in a glance: the executioner has yellow eye stripes; her dancers have blood-red ones. The children’s are blue; the mob’s are black; Turandot’s are blinding white.Puccini died after finishing the first two acts of “Turandot,” leaving 36 pages of sketches not fully orchestrated, to be fleshed out by Franco Alfano. This may account for the Turandot’s too-quick transformation from ice princess to passionate lover. A former Italian diplomat had given Puccini a music box that played Chinese melodies; one was the folk song “Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower),” sung by the children’s chorus in the first act, then associated with the princess.This “Turandot” was a strikingly unforgettable performance, bringing Puccini’s music to breathtaking life.
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