The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra gave a lesson on how to end a season on an exciting and powerful note, with Robert Spano, Music Director, conducting a rousing concert version of Saint-Saëns' opera Samson et Dalila. The Old Testament story is about the muscled Hebrew leader brought down by his love for the beautiful Delilah, who secretly wanted revenge for  Samson's belief in a god different from her own. It's the Hebrew god against Dagon, the Philistine god. Through Samson, the Hebrew god wins in the end, notwithstanding Samson's love for the pagan seductress.

Stuart Skelton © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Stuart Skelton
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

There are many opportunities throughout Saint-Saëns' work to demonstrate the musicality and skill of the various sections of the orchestra and test the mettle of a conductor. The ASO and Spano were undoubtedly up to that challenge. The work begins with a deep and dark theme in the low strings that foreshadows the end of this biblical tale of love and revenge.  The double basses were particularly impressive as they delivered a growl that was palpable – something that is difficult to achieve given Symphony Hall's acoustics. Throughout the performance, there was incredible playing by the winds, especially from Elizabeth Koch Tiscone (oboe), Emily Brebach (English horn), Christina Smith (flute) and Keith Buncke (bassoon). The young Mr Buncke will soon leave Atlanta to be the principal flute with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Ms Koch Tiscone's oboe was particularly seductive  in the first act Dance of the Priestesses of Dagon and in the sensual introduction to the familiar Act III Bacchanale. The violins showed tremendous precision and ensemble, as well as great warmth; this concert demonstrated that when playing at their best, they can be truly impressive. Maestro Spano appeared to pay close attention to the opera's dynamics, which added contrast and drama.

Another important partner in this performance was the 140-voice ASO Chorus, which was born and nurtured by the legendary Robert Shaw and whose legacy has been maintained by Director of Choruses Norman Mackenzie. The libretto, by Ferdinand Lemaire, was sung so precisely that the chorus often sounded more French than some of the individual soloists.   Overall, the chorus' performance was brilliant, not withstanding it be too loud at times.

The three principal soloists were Stephanie Blythe as Delilah, Greer Grimsley as the High Priest of Dagon and Stuart Skelton as Samson. Mr Skelton's golden voice was powerful, and it was never overwhelmed by the orchestra and sometimes too-loud chorus. Even though this concert performance did not require acting, Mr Grimsley successfully used a flip-of-the-hand or a turn-of- the-body to convey the priest's deviousness. He too has a large voice but sometimes his presentation was marred by poor diction and articulation.

Ms Blythe was the stand-out of the evening. She has a grand voice that exceeded even the power of Mr Skelton's. Yet her strength never hindered her attention to the music's detail, nor did it impair the sensuality so necessary in her role. She sang precisely, with wonderful clarity. Her performance provided the best vocals of the entire season. There was something magical in the way in which she sang the aria "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix". It was lush and romantic, but Ms Blythe was able to maintain a certain edge that betrayed Delilah's duplicity. Thus, while Delilah was singing about her love for Samson, Ms Blythe subtlety conveyed the character's desire to crush the Hebrew leader by extracting the secret of his strength. In a duet with Blythe, Skelton also portrayed both Samson's infatuation with Delilah and his wariness about her motivations. Another outstanding soloist in a secondary role was tenor Grant Knox convincingly singing the role of a Hebrew elder. He and Skelton were impressive in their dialogue about the danger presented by Delilah, and the potential for god's wrath to reign down because of Samson abandoning his leadership in favor of his love (or lust) for Delilah.

The Bacchanale was exciting and colorful, showcasing the collective strength of the ASO. The finale of the opera is bombastic, providing an opportunity for the percussion section to demonstrate its ability to make almost real the collapse of the temple at the hands of a reinvigorated Samson. 

This was a tour de force performance by the ASO, its chorus, and the outstanding lead soloists. Spano was at the top of his game and it demonstrated he can be brilliant. This season finale also marked the retirement of two long-term ASO musicians – clarinetist William Rappaport and French horn player Thomas Witte, the longest serving second horn in American professional orchestras.

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