This Teatro di San Carlo Samson et Dalila is one of great impact, not only musically but also visually. As the work has lasted over time more thanks to its sensual music than to its lop-sided storytelling (let's not forget that Saint-Saëns initially intended to write an oratorio and not an opera), it is even more remarkable that the director Damián Szifròn manages to imbue his production with flaming dramaturgy, as well as narrative flexibility, passing from oratorio moments to romantic melodrama to Grand Opéra, keeping high both the musical inspiration of the protagonists and the attention of the public.

Brian Jagde (Samson) and Anita Rachvelishvili (Dalila)
© Luciano Romano

Etienne Pluss' scenography is realistic and well cared for in its details, as are the beautiful costumes of Gesine Völlm; the result is an exciting staging that scrupulously follows the well-known biblical story of Delilah's deception against Samson. In this, the choral performance and the bacchanale play an important role; the latter is performed with movements apparently chaotic but instead calculated to the millimetre, involving bare-breasted dancers, extras and chorus, thus giving a realistic image of a pagan orgiastic feast.

The Act 3 Bacchanale
© Luciano Romano

Samson et Dalila is one of thirteen operas written by Saint-Saëns (the premiere took place in 1877), and although rarely performed, it is the only one that is still regularly staged. Its popularity is largely entrusted to Dalila's arias and the Act 3 bacchanale. But the Act 2 duet between Samson and Delilah is a lyrical and dramatic highlight, and one of considerable erotic tension, which cannot fail to recall Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In it, the sentiment appears sincere, at least between the two mimes who embody the protagonists; a happy family idyll in which she gives birth to twins who chase each other in the dunes. It is only a dream, though, and the Philistine Dalila swears revenge against the Hebrew Samson who led his people to revolt. Political reason takes over, until the cataclysmic finale.

The destruction of the temple
© Luciano Romano

Anita Rachvelishvili sang Dalila, the ambivalent protagonist, both lover and avenger. She conquered Samson not only with her warm and seductive singing, but also with her sensual acting, and vocally depicted her character with the deep, passionate and ductile tone of her mezzo. Of the three arias entrusted to her, she almost whispered “Printemps qui commence” in the first act with malicious intent, already thinking about how to seduce Samson (and all of us); then she sang “Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse”, but here in full voice, asserting the strong nature of her character. Finally, “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix”, one of the most famous arias in all opera, which she sang starting with a soft tone, then spread her voice along with her sensuality in full-throated glory.

Anita Rachvelishvili (Dalila)
© Luciano Romano

Brian Jagde delivered a very commendable performance, his voice adapting well to the French language, allowing him to produce the heroic tone required by the role. Samson is to be considered a Heldentenor, and here Jagde stood in good stead, given his vocal (and physical) prowess. Samson is a character who requires declamatory characteristics and a great depth of tone from the interpreter, and Jagde’s tenor was powerful and dramatically convincing, exhibiting an heroic tone even in the love duet. After all, the role does not involve much in terms of nuance.

Brian Jagde (Samson) and Chorus
© Luciano Romano

As for the supporting cast, Ernesto Petti was convincingly intimidating as Dagon's High Priest and sang with powerful intensity. In his brief appearance as Abimélech, Gabriele Sagona displayed a strong, clear, solid bass. Roberto Scandiuzzi deserves a separate mention in the minor role of the Old Hebrew, sporting a still powerful and colourful bass voice.

Conductor Dan Ettinger unravelled the musical narrative with a firm grip on the San Carlo orchestra and chorus, drawing from them cohesion and a variety of timbres hardly found in other recent performances here. The orchestra responded without letting the energy fail, and so did the chorus, which right from the beginning, with “Dieu! Dieu d’Israël!” stood authoritatively as one of the opera's protagonists, always cohesive, full of colour and emotionally involved.