Saint-Saëns counted his third opera as his masterpiece, but for all the popularity of some of its excerpts – Dalila’s seductive “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix”, or the racy Bacchanale – Samson et Dalila is rarely staged. Musically it’s a bit of a hybrid: the solemn, chorus-heavy first act is largely rooted in oratorio; the second has a crack at Wagner-infused eroticism; the third takes us from Samson’s toiling in prison to the kitschy excesses of the Philistine temple. And while the biblical setting will no doubt have its seductions for a director – who can resist a juicy exotic orgy? – the Old Testament earnestness is the sort of thing that it’s difficult to bring to the modern opera stage convincingly.

Brandon Jovanovich (Samson) and Elīna Garanča (Dalila)
© Matthias Baus

I wondered whether Argentinian film director Damián Szifron, making his opera debut here in the Staatsoper's new production, detected any of these difficulties. Whatever the case, he failed to find many solutions with his decision to stage the work as a straight biblical epic. Here we had a Zefferelli-esque spectacle, squeezed onto the Staatsoper Berlin’s relatively small stage: a show that could in large part have dated from fifty years ago – or more. And having made that decision, Szifron compounded matters with further misjudgements.

A dog didn’t quite do what it was supposed to at the start, and there were more titters as Samson struggled to drag a bull onto the stage at his entrance. Then there were even more during the Priestesses’ Dance, where Samson and Dalila watch as a couple of look-alikes swiftly ran the gamut from seduction, through pregnancy, to parenthood. Samson received unconvincing prolonged dustings-up from Philistine heavies; and he and Dalila had only seconds for their love scene to rush to its similarly unconvincing climax.

Kwangchul Youn (Abimelech) und Brandon Jovanovich (Samson)
© Matthias Baus

The director never quite seems to know what time of day it is, either, with a wobbly sun rising tipsily into the sky and disappearing again at will – the God of the Old Testament here apparently still working out how the celestial dimmer switch works (light by Olaf Freese, video by Judith Selenko). Gesine Völlm’s costumes put the Hebrews in white smocks, the Philistines in more imaginative tribal wear. In Etienne Pluss’ sets, a rocky canyon, simple dwellings nestled into its sides, further contains Act 1’s action. We change to Dalila’s cave – a distinctly unseductive hovel – in Act 2 courtesy of the Staatsoper’s stage machinery, the whole front section of the set shifting up. It’s the only moment in the evening’s first half that suggests a modern production.

Act 3 does so to a degree, too, with some McVicar-esque excess added into the mix. There are topless dancers, plenty of writhing and jiving, and a ritual execution. Here Szifron intervenes more, too, to bring a layer of complexity to the work’s central relationship: despite all the evidence in the libretto, he sees Samson and Dalila’s grand amour thwarted by Samson’s commitment issues. There are certainly interesting questions here, not least in a work premiered (in Weimar) a year after Wagner’s Ring, regarding a near-invincible operatic hero coming up against reality; and, like Siegfried, Samson only becomes interesting once things start going pear-shaped. But Szifron’s doesn’t get anywhere near exploring further in a production that shows his operatic inexperience at every turn.

Michael Volle (High Priest of Dagon)
© Matthias Baus

Nor, alas, is there much to enjoy on the musical side. Daniel Barenboim conducted a grandly dramatic recording Samson et Dalila when at the Orchestre de Paris, but his reading with the Staatskapelle here too often felt underripe, tepid when it should sizzle, small-screen where it should have been in full cinemascope. As Dalila, Elīna Garanča sings beautifully much of the time, but she had to push her chest voice in a role that seems to sit too low for her, and temperamentally she’s simply too cool for the character. Her “Printemps qui commence” – staged with chaste economy – was classily done, but there was something foursquare about her “Mon cœur”, surely not helped by her having to sing it on her back as Brandon Jovanovich’s Samson headed south down her torso.

Jovanovich is a solid performer, meanwhile, but doesn’t have the charisma, vocal allure or basic decibels to bring our hirsute hero excitingly to life – and he seemed to tire quickly on opening night. Michael Volle ranted and raved powerfully as the High Priest. Kwangchul Youn was a woolly Abimelech, Wolfgang Schöne an unsteady Old Hebrew, often out of tune. Even the Staatsoper Chorus, usually reliable, was on underpowering, under-focused form. This was another disappointing night at Unter den Linden.