For good or for evil, till death do us part? Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila is no traditional tragic romance. Love is a question of loyalty to one’s god, as Washington National Opera’s production, directed by Peter Kazaras, opulently unveils. 

J'Nai Bridges (Dalila) and WNO Chorus © Scott Suchman
J'Nai Bridges (Dalila) and WNO Chorus
© Scott Suchman

Projection designer S. Katy Tucker and lighting designer Robert Wierzel have cleverly outdone themselves; audiences will hardly recognize this as the same minimalist set of the concurrently running Don Giovanni. Swirling blue storms, images of ancient tiles, crowds of Israelites in battle and in mourning cast against the scrim, as well as rich purple hues of intrigue and seduction that glow into decadent burnt orange as the party gets underway positively transform the stark high walls, the balconies that slide in an out, and a single ramp with a cold metal handrail that was formerly lined by Giovanni’s ghosts of women past. No question it is now the contested realm of Dagon and Jehovah. 

Roberto Aronica (Samson) and J'Nai Bridges (Dalila) © Scott Suchman
Roberto Aronica (Samson) and J'Nai Bridges (Dalila)
© Scott Suchman

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges owns this opera in the role of Dalila. Stretching out her arms to spread the sumptuous wings of her gown, she appeared as a palatial goddess as she sang of retribution in glowing, lush tones. The vocal range the score demands goes just a little low for her, at times she struggled with crossover, but her magnetism was undeniable. As Samson, Roberto Aronica settled into a warm tone by the third act, when he took center stage forlornly chained, but he had something of a rough start, cutting almost a hoarse edge at times. Technically, however, he was peerless. Noel Bouley, as the High Priest of Dagon, was consistently fantastic in every regard, holding court and making demands with an arresting vocal presence. 

J'Nai Bridges (Dalila) and Roberto Aronica (Samson) © Scott Suchman
J'Nai Bridges (Dalila) and Roberto Aronica (Samson)
© Scott Suchman

It’s little surprise Saint-Saëns began this opera in rough drafts as an oratorio, but while the chorus was a welcome presence, it was the orchestra that really stole this show. The score features some extravagantly long orchestral interludes for an opera, and conductor John Fiore sank into each one with furor from the overture onward. The third act Bacchanale struck thrilling tempos and sexy phrasing to match the elaborately-staged party of revelers above to pull the most enthusiastic bravo’s from an otherwise sleepy Sunday matinee audience. It was riveting.

Love is poison, as Dalila makes clear, but only if you’re using it as a weapon. The battle that ensued at WNO was a blissful reminder of how sweet its sparring can sound.

****1