The Met’s spanking new, traditional enough, production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila burst onto the stage in a blaze of vaguely garish glory on opening night. The biblical epic, which certainly spends more time on the title characters’ inner tensions than it does on matters biblical, can come across as a mere panoply for sensual exoticism – a shot in the arm it actually needs since the music itself, save for a stunning second act, two sexy arias and an intensely vulgar Bacchanal near the end – holds little dramatic tension. The feats of bravery and strength of Samson – practically a superhero in the Bible – are disregarded in favor of the central “love” story... more a one-sided “lust” story vs a piece of manipulative trickery.

Elīna Garanča (Dalila) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Elīna Garanča (Dalila)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The gray drabness of the Israelites’ outfits and strangely constructed walls – a monotonous, timeless look, semi-circular, made of what looked like mesh – may have been dull, but gave way, upon Dalila’s entrance, to a gaggle of shocking pink clad, feathered chorines against purple/blue lighting. It may have been trashy but, I dare say, only a bit more than Saint-Saëns’ peculiar brand of kitschy orientalism. Linda Cho’s shameless costumes were over-the-top, mostly in an apt way. Alexander Dodge’s set for Act 2 was more interesting, with an oculus at the top of a grand staircase (which was ubiquitous – what to do when you need action onstage), a fire-pit or two and, once again, a shocking blaze of color which almost pushed the audience backward into its seats. The deranged set for the Bacchanal in Act 3 consisted of a stageful of onlookers in startling red, with a floor-to-ceiling see-through statue of Dagon split in half down the middle, first blue, then red, frequently crawled up, in and over by “lusty” revelers in very little clothing. (Donald Holder’s lighting kept us guessing throughout the evening.) The destruction of the temple was wildly anti-climactic: Samson walks into the temple and then comes out again, he breaks his chains, lightning flashes, there’s a billow of smoke, and the cast runs hither and yon. Nothing falls down. Not even Dalila. 

Roberto Alagna (Samson) and Elīna Garanča (Dalila) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Roberto Alagna (Samson) and Elīna Garanča (Dalila)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Lacking Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature or, for that matter, Plácido Domingo and Shirley Verrett, the Met’s casting was very strong on paper. Both Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanca cut alluring figures onstage, both act convincingly, and they almost have the requisite sounds for their roles. Alagna comes closer – his tone, over the years has turned dark and gained nobility – but he was vocally in distress for most of the evening. Scratchy and effortful in Act 1, he gained tonal center and security for Act 2. But by the third act he had run dry, and the climactic B flat he sings as he destroys the temple cracked. (In all fairness, I have heard both Domingo and Vickers crack on that note too.)

Elīna Garanča (Dalila) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Elīna Garanča (Dalila)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Ms Garanca is certainly gorgeous enough and she looked stunning in her color-by-Technicolor costumes. But her voice, though lustrous and potent at the top, lacks strength in the lowest registers, and Dalila is a true mezzo, requiring fierce sounds from the chest. Even as conductor Sir Mark Elder was holding the orchestra down (and leading at a snail’s pace) during her first act aria, “Printemps qui commence”, she was often inaudible. Furthermore – and here we enter directorial issues, director Darko Tresnjak – she lacked profile and motivation. Is it vengeance for her people? Is she truly in love, much against her own better judgment? Or is she just walking back and forth, occasionally touching Samson’s hand, dropping an outer garment to reveal another? There was more heat coming from the fire pits on stage than from Dalila – as long as the sets and costumes were kitschy, why not go all the way and play full-out vamp? Ms Garanca can be cool on stage (an exception was her thrilling Octavian last season) and she got no help here, her rigid posture giving the lie to her protestations of love and lust.

In general, Tresnjak’s direction was harmless and moved the cast and chorus around well, but in going for the big, MGM-musical approach, the characters found little nuance.

Bacchanale © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Bacchanale
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Elchin Azizov’s brief number in Act 1 exhibited a voice of substance as Abimelech; Dmitry Belosselskiy’s Old Hebrew was warm-voiced and dignified and Laurent Naouri, as the High Priest, was utterly convincing. From the first moments of the opera, with the pitch-dark intonations on double bass, the oratorio-like fugue that follows and the pleading chorus of Israelite, it was clear that Mark Elder had rehearsed the players and chorus brilliantly. And aside from some dreamy tempi for Dalila’s solos, the performance was musically thrilling.

***11