With music by melody master Camille Saint-Saëns and a libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire, the perennial favorite Samson et Dalila embodies classic opera themes: obsession, revenge, political power struggles, and just plain lust. Not heard here since 1965, Seattle Opera chose to present it in concert version, with full orchestra and chorus onstage. This is not unreasonable given the opera-oratorio crossover it represents; prominent among composers who wrote the biblical tale as oratorio was Handel. Saint-Saëns himself was ambivalent as to the exact category. The riveting singing of the high-powered cast, which included a number of Pacific Northwest natives in their Seattle debuts, more than made up for limitations in scenery, costumes and staging.

J'Nai Bridges (Dalila)
© Sunny Martini

Celebrated Korean lyric tenor Yonghoon Lee debuted in the challenging title role. Lee immediately displayed immense power in his first entrance. His sound filled the hall; indeed, it seemed capable of projecting beyond the confines of the hall. But his timbre was too bright for a role that calls for a darker, duskier sound. Lee’s finest moments came in his monologue at the beginning of Act 3, where his intimate approach elicited more sympathy from the listener. 

Seattle has much to be proud of in the accomplishments of Grammy Award-winning mezzo J’Nai Bridges, whose star has risen meteorically in recent years. In her debut as the seductress Dalila, this Pacific Northwest native delivered a performance that confirmed her reputation as one of the most in-demand singers of her generation. From the moment she glided onto the stage, Bridges dazzled the audience physically, dramatically and vocally: a defiant, vengeful, seductive portrayal that was mesmerizing. With very few exceptions, her singing was effortless, as the role fits perfectly into her Fach. Her lush voice sounded slightly forced in “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” but that may have been due to the fact that this iconic aria is one of the most daunting in the mezzo repertoire. Overall, Bridges created a Dalila that was memorable in every way.

Yonghoon Lee (Samson) and J'Nai Bridges (Dalila)
© Sunny Martini

Seattle audience favorite Greer Grimsley brought enormous depth in the role of the High Priest of Dagon. He made the most of his limited time onstage doing what he does best: commanding the stage vocally and dramatically. The theatrically intense interplay of his duet with Bridges brought the house down.

Andrew Potter’s Abimelech made a robust first impression. Physically imposing in stature, with a voice to match, this bass is a singer to watch. Tacoma-born John Marzano, as the Philistine Messenger, and Daniel Sumegi, as the Old Hebrew, made solid contributions in their minor roles. 

Audiences have long admired Seattle Symphony Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot’s interpretations of his native French music. Last seen in the Seattle Opera pit with Béatrice et Bénédict, Morlot brought his usual Gallic vigor and flair to Saint-Saëns' score. Sensuality was the name of the game, and Morlot knew exactly how to coax voluptuousness out of every instrument, but also emphasized the special beauty, which was a revelation to hear onstage rather than in the pit. With powerful gestures, Morlot continued to build tension throughout the performance, culminating in a compelling Bacchanale. 

Samson et Dalila at Seattle Opera
© Sunny Martini

Preparing the 52-member Seattle Opera chorus was Chorus Master Michaella Calzaretta, who made her SO debut earlier this season. Her chorus was one of the stars of the evening. From the agonized plaints of the Hebrews to the sensuous affirmations of Philistine femininity, the voices were radiant.

Director David Gately, a Seattle native, used his characteristic ingenuity to create a staging that represented the essence of the drama in this biblical story despite its concert setting. Known for subtle gestures that enhance the characters’ portrayals, Gately added details that heightened the drama. The most memorable example came when Bridges summarily dismissed Grimsley’s insincere attempt to kiss her hand.

Rick Araluce’s unit set, with its arch and massive pillars, provided the perfect background for Connie Yun’s lighting, which added a veritable rainbow of color. Her choice of hues, from sensuous pinks and mauves to the lustful red-orange for the Bacchanale, was pleasing to the eye at every moment.