I really feel for Elīna Garanča. The Latvian mezzo, easily the leading Dalila of our day, has now opened her fourth new production of Saint-Säens’ biblical epic in as many years and every one has been a dud, from Alexandra Liedtke’s cold, clinical staging in Vienna to Damián Szifron’s Berlin misfire. At least Darko Tresnjak’s kitschy orientalism at the Met was in keeping with over-the-top Cecil B DeMille opulence. And now comes Richard Jones to replace Elijah Moshinsky’s striking 1981 production, the oldest staging in the Royal Opera stable, although they hadn’t bothered to mount it since 2004. 

Elīna Garanča (Dalila)
© ROH | Clive Barda

“Seigneur, inspire-moi!” sings the blinded Samson in Act 3. Inspiration, alas, seems to have eluded Jones. I’m not sure what budget he had to work with but it was clearly too little and he blew most of it on a giant clown’s head holding a fruit machine and gaming chips. Hyemi Shin’s ugly sets are mostly steps and corrugated iron. The Philistines run a totalitarian regime where vicious beatings are doled out, while the Hebrews seem to have wandered in from the house’s production of Nabucco, although there are scenes of ritual including scripture and foot-washing. The High Priest is a thug in a parka, his heavies leering soldiers in berets. Dalila is a sequined showgirl in Act 3, the Bacchanale is a limp spectacle of line-dancing and Samson’s destruction of the temple doesn’t exactly bring the house down. It feels cheap and tacky, even by Philistine standards. The money would have been better spent refurbishing Sidney Nolan's sets and reviving the Moshinsky. 

Bacchanale, Act 3
© ROH | Clive Barda

Jones tries to evoke sympathy towards Dalila and address her sudden change of motivation – it’s seeing the body of the slain Philistine governor that spurs her on to ensnare Samson – yet she is clearly troubled by the rough treatment of Samson in the final scene. And does she twig the secret of his strength herself? When she starts examining his hair closely during “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” it brought back childhood memories of queuing to see the nit nurse. 

Elīna Garanča (Dalila) and SeokJong Baek (Samson)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Musically, things were largely excellent. If Jones’ direction turns out to be a busted flush, the trump card could well have been dealt back in March by Director of Casting, Peter Katona. When charismatic tenor Nicky Spence was forced to withdraw from the production having broken both his legs in January, the house came up with a name that surprised just about everyone: SeokJong Baek. The South Korean tenor was not just making his Royal Opera debut, but it was also his role debut plus his debut as a tenor, having retrained from singing baritone. No big deal. Baek did a terrific job. There was plenty of plangent tone, fine French diction and lovely shaping of phrases, even if he doesn’t yet seem a completely natural stage animal. 

Łukasz Goliński (High Priest) and Elīna Garanča (Dalila)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Another assured house debut was delivered by Polish baritone Łukasz Goliński as the High Priest, firm-toned with a nice snarl in the voice. Blaise Malaba sang a sturdy Abimélech, while Goderdzi Janelidze was a growly Old Hebrew, here cast as Samson’s Rabbi who crops up well after his sole Act 1 appearance in the score as some sort of guiding spirit. The Royal Opera Chorus sang with gusto – Saint-Säens can’t quite decide if he’s writing an opera or an oratorio at times – and the big choral scenes made a tremendous aural impact. Sir Antonio Pappano drove the colourful score along impulsively, the woodwind murmurations in the Act 2 prelude particularly evocative. The Bacchanale was much more sultry and steamy in the pit than anything on the stage. 

Samson et Dalila
© ROH | Clive Barda

But ultimately this was Garanča’s show. She has a glorious, golden tone and imperious top notes. Since first singing Dalila in Vienna, her lower register has grown, adding some vocal sizzle to her interpretation. Her “Printemps qui commence” was light and beguiling; “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” was luscious. I'd happily fall for her seduction every time. This may be a production to listen to, but you won’t want to tear your eyes off Garanča.