Strip Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila of its biblical setting and what have you got left? An individual who succumbs to temptation and forfeits his life to kill hundreds of his religious enemies. Today, Samson would be labelled a suicide bomber, yet in the Bible he is glorified as a hero. In her debut production at the Wiener Staatsoper, Alexandra Liedtke eschews Old Testament exoticism to present a tale of two lonely people from different sides of a conflict. It's a tepid staging sparked into life by a splendid pair of role debuts by Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča.

Elīna Garanča (Dalila) and Roberto Alagna (Samson) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Elīna Garanča (Dalila) and Roberto Alagna (Samson)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Liedtke doesn't seem remotely interested in the religious aspects of the libretto, which leaves her production naked in terms of drama. She claims to be inspired by David Grossman’s book Lion’s Honey, which argues Samson is a kind of suicide bomber. Sadly, there's still plenty of religious conflict in the world today that could make such an updating relevant. Others have already done it better though, particularly the Opera Vlaanderen staging by Omri Nitzan and Amir Nizar Zuabi – an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian – who not only set the drama in present-day Gaza, but turn the Jews from occupied into occupying force. Liedtke's Israelites are a disillusioned people, apathetic, tearing pages from scriptures they no longer believe. Carousing Philistines are dressed for a swanky cocktail party but they barely look as if they're having a better time. The stabbing of the Philistine governor is feeble, after which their guards give in rather meekly. There is no frisson of tension between opposing sides.

Raimund Orfeo Voigt's sets make use of the Staatsoper's revolve – a ramp, a bathroom in Dalila's home, and a raised platform where the blinded Samson is mocked. There's a clinical blandness to Act 2 with its fully plumbed-in bath which sees Samson splashing about angrily as he tries to resist Dalila's attempts to discover the secret of his strength. Samson doesn't have especially long hair – Alagna's own flowing locks – and Dalila barely snips more than a keepsake, the scene ending in a torrent of water raining noisily onto the set.

Elīna Garanča (Dalila) and Roberto Alagna (Samson) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Elīna Garanča (Dalila) and Roberto Alagna (Samson)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

There are a few directorial oddities. The Old Hebrew in Act 1 is blind, so has to clap his hands over his ears during the seductive ballet of scantily-clad Philistines as, presumably, it's the music that offends him. And during the Bacchanale, the Philistines torture Samson's dancer double by roughing him up and throwing footwear at him, while Alagna writhes on the prompt box. The High Priest of Dagon offers Dalila the opportunity to kill Samson, which she declines – a potentially interesting idea that goes nowhere. Of course, there is no temple to come crashing down, so Liedtke has Samson's double return, setting himself alight, detonating explosive fireballs behind the Philistines – a striking effect, but too late to ignite Liedtke's tame production.

Act 3 finale © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Act 3 finale
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

On opening night, musical matters were far more convincing. Roberto Alagna was in heroic voice as Samson. He has been singing Otello and Calaf recently and his tenor now fits this repertoire admirably. He is an honest singer, and this was a whole-hearted performance, recovering from a few nervy moments early on. Samson's Act 3 prayer was touchingly sincere. As with her Eboli in Paris, Elina Garanča's top notes are gloriously imperious, but she doesn't have the earthy lower notes to make a sultry Dalila. This was Dalila's calculating northern cousin, emphasised by her soft powder-blue dress in Act 2. “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” was elegantly phrased and sapphire cool, yet it would still melt a stronger man than Samson.

Carlos Álvarez was the gravelly, chain-smoking High Priest of Dagon, firm-voiced and at his best battling to convince Dalila to discover Samson's secret. He is a man as besotted with her as Samson is, and Garanča's Dalila clearly enjoyed this sexual power. Dan Paul Dumitrescu's Old Hebrew was underpowered but Sorin Coliban made an impact in his brief appearance as Abimélech.

Carlos Álvarez (High Priest of Dagon) and Solin Coliban (Abimélech) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Carlos Álvarez (High Priest of Dagon) and Solin Coliban (Abimélech)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

In the pit, Marco Armiliato hit the spot with a superb account of the score. Granite double basses glowered, honeyed strings swooned, particularly their naughty-but-nice portamenti in Dalila's “Voici le printemps”. The music Saint-Saëns composed for the Philistines is littered with chromatic scales; the burbling clarinets and wafting flute zephyrs in the Act 2 prelude impressed, along with a vivid Bacchanale, laced with glittering percussion. Liedtke may have abandoned exoticism, but the music still glistened with a sweaty fervour.

***11