To Camille Saint-Saëns, the operatic appeal of the biblical subject of Samson is perfectly understandable. Theoretically, the story contains the dramatic trappings of exciting grand opera: a romance, tragedy, larger-than-life setting, a ballet. But for current operatic audiences, it is easy for the subject to appear stale. With a lack of dramatic dynamism, staging this piece can be a challenge. Saint-Saëns’ sweeping score leaves a lot of freedom for dramatic interpretation and the results can be ineffective.

Mezzo soprano Nadia Krasteva is Delilah and tenor Clifton Forbis is Samson © J. Katarzyna Woronowicz. San Diego Opera, February 2013
Mezzo soprano Nadia Krasteva is Delilah and tenor Clifton Forbis is Samson
© J. Katarzyna Woronowicz. San Diego Opera, February 2013

This production of Samson and Delilah, directed by Lesley Koening, is reasonably successful at bringing the ancient story to life with some believable stage action. While there were some missteps, such as some awkward reclining/sitting by the two lovers in the second act, there were many scenes of appropriate direction that played up the subtext of the story. The Hebrews’ tepid reception of the hero in the first scene and Delilah’s subtle discovery of Samson’s strength are two instances where Koening used her creative license to craft a more convincing narrative throughout Saint-Saëns’ expansive landscape.

The sets and costumes were saturated with warm colors, none of the washed-out neutrals that can sometimes be prevalent in period productions such as this. The textures were all wonderfully detailed with three-dimensional effects. The only downside was the slightly confined appearance of the first and last scenes. The massive chorus tended to barely be able to squeeze onstage. This was most detrimental in the “Bacchanale” which limited the available space for the dancers. Still, the entire look was refreshing and unworn, impressive for a revival production.

Ms Koening must have reveled having two singing actors of such outstanding dramatic commitment in Clifton Forbis and Nadia Krasteva. Mr Forbis displayed a keen dramatic instinct with expressions and reactions well suited to his conflicted character, the summit of which was his moving Act III scene in the dungeon at Gaza. Ms Koening and Mr Forbis made this Samson a living, breathing man who, with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, falters in a most empathetic manner. Vocally, Mr Forbis sang with a distinctive, and often thrilling, squillo in his powerful tenor. Above the staff, his voice is huge and piercing, stentorian in a bygone way. The consistency in his sound is a bit frustrating, however, in that his middle and lower registers have little shimmer and seem to broaden in vibrato. But, considering the power still inherent in Mr Forbis’ voice, he is an exciting singer to behold.

Inarguably, the star of the performance was Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva as Delilah. Majestic in stature and stunning in beauty, Ms Krasteva sang with a smoldering burliness in her chest voice, a characteristic that extended to her effortless high notes, and her irresistible “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” was the musical highlight of the evening. Her voice was consistent through the registers and always effortlessly controlled. Ms Krasteva’s deportment on stage was magnetic in its appeal; she was at turns sultry and scheming. Her triumphant gloating over Samson was emasculating. What’s more, her short stints with choreography were also convincingly executed. Ms Krasteva was a Delilah that anyone could understandably fall for.

Anooshah Golesorkhi as the High Priest was in fine voice. His honeyed baritone was pliable, but with a smarmy temperament about it. While not particularly complex as a character, Golesorkhi portrayed him without resorting to caricature, and made him a most despicable villain. The smaller parts were all persuasively performed. Gregory Reinhart, in particular, as the Old Hebrew was especially sympathetic and richly sung.

The orchestra and chorus were most satisfying. The chorus, whose amount of music was quite substantial, sang with a robust sound. Their dramatic involvement in the story was also excellently executed. Under Karen Keltner, the orchestra played with sensitivity and leanness of sound. The strings in particular, were especially nimble and able to collaborate with the onstage forces for a cohesive presentation.

Although not breaking new ground, this production is extremely gratifying and, given the irresistible performance of Nadia Krasteva and outstanding all around efforts, a Samson and Delilah of exceptional effectiveness.