Country house opera in an English summer has become a top place to discover operas that aren’t performed all that often: last night was the turn of Grange Park Opera with Saint-Saëns biblical epic Samson et Dalila. They made a strong case in favour of the work.

Carl Tanner as Samson, Sara Fulgoni as Dalila © Robert Workman
Carl Tanner as Samson, Sara Fulgoni as Dalila
© Robert Workman

The strongest witnesses in favour were the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gianluca Marcianò, who played out of their skins, revealing Saint-Saëns’ score to be a treasure trove: lush, full of variety, opulent to the point of decadence. The variety of orchestral sounds is greater than any I’ve heard from music prior to the twentieth century, and the music is awash with melody.  The orchestra seemed to revel in the opera’s big ballet number, the Bacchanale in Act 3 scene 2, delivering huge excitement.

The other big thrill of the evening came from Carl Tanner, who sang the role of Samson as if he was singing Wagner: this is a big man with a big voice, displaying genuine heldentenor virtues of strength, nobility and beauty of line even in the most daredevil highs. With Tanner, we felt every moment of Samson’s plight, from the moment that he sees Dalila and is aware that his weakness for her may prove his undoing, through his unsuccessful struggle to resist her charms to his despair in the final scene.

A succession of big entrance arias from the other male roles showed them to have been strongly cast: each of Nicholas Folwell (Abimelech), Christophoros Stamboglis (the Old Hebrew) and Michel de Souza (the High Priest of Dagon) made the most of the glorious lyricism of Saint-Saëns’ settings; de Souza also impressed in his exchanges with Dalila in Act II.

Sara Fulgoni’s Dalila disappointed. Her voice was so laden with vibrato that it was almost impossible to make out the underlying timbre and quite impossible to understand any of her French. Nor was the lack of vocal colour made up for by acting: the Dalila of in Act II needs to be the ultimate, irresistible seductress, and Fulgoni came well short of that standard. She has the tall and beautiful looks to pull it off, but her body language didn’t communicate enough emotion to make us believe.

Carl Tanner as Samson © Robert Workman
Carl Tanner as Samson
© Robert Workman

Generally, apart from Tanner’s Samson, director Paul Mason did not get much in the way of acting performances from his main singers: there simply wasn’t enough facial expression, gesture and movement to to turn the opera from a great piece of music into a great piece of theatre. To be fair, the work is a difficult one dramatically: Saint-Saëns originally intended it as an oratorio and he doesn’t display the eye for the big dramatic moment of a Mozart or a Verdi. But the lack of commitment in the acting was a pity, since the Francis O’Connor’s sets, costumes and the general staging were stylish and had a lot of appeal. The setting was Vichy France, which worked well enough in updating Philistines vs Israelites into Nazis vs Jews. Some elements worked really well, particularly the lovingly built synagogue of Act I, created from just a few stylistic cues, the layout of Dalila’s chamber in Act II, or the book-burning scenes in Act III. Other elements didn’t come off, notably the ending (which I won’t spoil) and the Bacchanale, which was portrayed as the screening of a propaganda movie, overseen by a Leni Riefenstahl-like character – an interesting idea, but with the problem that in a long dance number, a movie audience is basically static, however much it is shifting in its seats. And I was continually annoyed by the clumsiness of surtitles translating “Dieu” as “Leader” (i.e. “der Führer”) when referring to the Philistine god Dagon, for an audience of whom most would have known that “Dieu” means “God”.

MIchel de Souza as the High Priest of Dagon, Edmond Choo as Philistine Messenger © Robert Workman
MIchel de Souza as the High Priest of Dagon, Edmond Choo as Philistine Messenger
© Robert Workman

Overall, Grange Park’s Samson et Dalila doesn’t hit the bull’s eye, but it’s well worth the visit for a decent all-round staging of an unfamiliar work, an excellent rendering of its sumptuous score and for a thrilling piece of singing by Carl Tanner.