Review: SAMSON ET DALILA, Royal Opera House

Richard Jones directs a new production of Saint-Saëns's Biblical epic of an opera

By: Jun. 06, 2022
Review: SAMSON ET DALILA, Royal Opera House
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Review: SAMSON ET DALILA, Royal Opera House

Jews don't have an easy time in opera. If they are portrayed on stage, it is usually as victims, enslaved longing for their native land as in Nabucco or antagonised as is the case with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's Beckmesser or Das Rhinegold's Alberich both of which are infamously imbued with negative Jewish stereotypes. Enter Camille Saint-Saens's Samson Et Dalila, an opera where a Jewish hero is portrayed as noble but flawed, strong but doomed.

Director Richard Jones does not shy away from employing religious imagery. Stars of David Are everywhere. The chorus wield prayer books whose covers are inscribed with Hebrew. They are initially dressed in vaguely Jewish attire: head scarves and long skirts for the women, short caps and long coats for the men. Samson even whips out a Torah scroll at one point. The attention is detail lovingly crafted, but does it serve a purpose other than fleshing out the Biblical setting?

It's meaning eventually emerges with the reveal of the Philistine's world of decadence and excess. The two worlds are antithetical: the former is ascetic and austere, the latter is lavish, hedonistic, and opulent. Samson is tricked by Dalila and taken to the Philistine's temple where a giant garish idol is wheeled out and worshipped by the Philistines with a tribal dance. Any notion of holiness drowns in a sea of crimson red bacchanalia thanks to set designer Hyemi Shin.

A Shtetl to Las Vegas in the blink of an eye; sexual energy pulsates through the room. The drab conservative costumes from the first act are replaced with shimmering dresses, glimmering jewels, and golden sequined suits. Nicky Gillibrand's costume designs really are something to behold. This is the core of the production: the antagonisms between the body and faith, lust and spirituality. Except, nothing comes from it.

The underwhelming climax does not deliver the promised knockout punch suggested by the luscious imagery and graphic symbols. It is a shame given that the production previously generates a rich visual language to communicate with. Samson destroys the Philistines, and everything, literally and metaphorically, collapses in on itself.

Samson is caught in the middle of this ideological conflict. SeokJong Baek's stalwart vocal performance ensures that he is charming but anguished, tormented by the turmoil of a man drawn between two worlds, Dalila and duty to his nation. Baek's Samson is easily ensnared by Elīna Garanča's narcotic Dalila. Her voice is warm and adoring, she easily masks her true deceitful intentions with her fluid physicality and carnal intrigue. It is no wonder that Samson is spellbound. The audience are too.

Maestro Antonio Pappano is as strong as ever. He captures the parallels in the tonal and spiritual shift in the production's visual design in the music, accentuating the fluidity in the third act to make Samson, and the audience, feel like strangers in a foreign land.

There is also something to be said about the Philistines in the context of Orientalism. The atmosphere in the latter part of the opera echoes the work of artists like Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Eugène Delacroix whose depictions of the 'Orient' paint a picture of a mysterious land of amoral debauchery and sexual depravity. Jones does well to engender the aura with bucket-loads of orgiastic flare, but nothing deeper emerges from it leaving a small but noticeable hole in this otherwise alluring production.

Samson Et Dalila runs at the Royal Opera House Until 19 June.

Photo Credit: Clive Barda



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