L’Opéra de Montréal opened 2015 with a new production of Camille Saint-Saëns’ grand biblical opera, Samson et Dalila. Though the composer finally completed the work in 1877, it was created (in German) in Weimar with the help of Franz Liszt. The opera only established itself in the operatic repertoire after its French and Parisian premières in 1892. For three generations, productions throughout the world featured some of the greatest French singers of the 20th century but modern revivals have invariably presented non-francophone artists in the leading roles (underlining the virtual disappearance of the French school of singing). With one exception, this was (strangely) the case in this present production.

The one exception, and the chief attraction of the OdeM’s present production, is the first Dalila of the internationally renowned mezzo-soprano, Marie-Nicole Lemieux. One of Québec’s most treasured cultural exports, she totally dominated proceedings on opening night. Her Dalila was more driven than a mere “femme fatale”. This Dalila seduced principally through vocal sensuality rather than physical allure. The vocal opulence, musicality, range of colour and nuance, as well as the sensibility and implication with which she imbued her Dalila, more than made up for rare moments of uncertain focus and driven tone. “Amour viens aider ma faiblesse” was beautifully scaled and well negotiated but it was in “Mon cœur s’œuvre à ta voix” that Lemieux showed true poetry and a superb sense of line, phrasing and mezza-voce. More important, she succeeded in creating a psychologically compelling character. This was a most impressive first performance of a role that is likely to become an increasingly important part of her active repertoire.

The rest of the cast was on a distinctly different level of accomplishment. Samson, the German tenor Endrik Wottrich, was vocally, stylistically and linguistically ungainly. Physically imposing, his vocal production was equally muscular, with constricted tone and woefully little tonal variety or colour. His opening aria, “Arretez o, mes frères” was particularly trying and effortful. He was also dramatically pallid. His Samson was not only one-dimensional but also armed with several stock arm and hand gestures. He was neither heroic of voice nor emotionally and psychologically fragile and complex.

The stalwart Canadian baritone Gregory Dahl made a credible Grand Prête. Vocally handsome and verbally responsive (with fine French) in both duets with Dalila, one only wished he possessed a more supple and engaging legato. Alain Coulombe’s Old Hebrew also made a most positive contribution. Jean-Marie Zeitouni in the pit played it safe and allowed the orchestra to revel in Saint-Saëns’ richly attractive score. What his reading lacked in dramatic tension and energy as well as emotional commitment was counter-balanced by a fair degree of textured lyricism. It helped immensely that the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal was in the pit.

The nature of the work and the production values represented more serious flaws. This new production, conceived by a team of lighting and video designers, reduced the epic – even heroic – core of the work to something more muted and subdued, limiting the opera, both in scale and scope and in terms of dramatic impact and range. Alain Gauthier’s direction couldn’t break loose from the structural confines Saint-Saëns placed upon it. It must be said that Saint-Saëns’ sense of dramatic pacing and contrast in this opera left much to be desired yet Gauthier offered a static, unimaginative and prosaic realisation that simply served to remind us that the composer had originally conceived the subject as an oratorio. In many respects, this production was precisely that; an oratorio, albeit one with costumes (in this case largely unobjectionable with the exception of Dalila’s exaggerated head-gear) and a unique set.

The set, designed by the team of Anick La Bissonnière and Éric Olivier Lacroix, was composed of some 20 elongated rectangular and movable panels that formed a giant inverted and angled ‘L’ upstage. From the opening of the opera, and while resting upon a racked stage, the panels displayed a series of video projections by Circo de Bakuza that created abstract atmospheres or defined and delineated physical settings and venues. None of the projections were more striking than that of a pair of naked dancers during the Act III Baccanale. Lighting effects by Éric Champoux were not always effective or accurate which added to the on-stage malaise of a none-too-dramatic music drama deprived of its very nature and purpose.