02 Mar 2013

Samson and Delilah, San Diego Opera

Samson and Delilah is the only opera by Camille Saint-Saens that is still regularly performed. He had written two previous operas and would write several more, along with a long list of instrumental pieces including The Carnival of the Animals.

In the 1860s the composer was aware of a renewed interest in choral music, so he planned an oratorio on the story of Samson that is found in Chapter sixteen of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. He spoke to the husband of one of his wife's cousins, Ferdinand Lemaire, about writing a libretto for it and the writer said the story would make a good opera. They began working on it as an opera, but other concerns interrupted them.

Fellow composer Franz Liszt, who was interested in producing new works by talented composers, persuaded Saint-Saëns to finish Samson and Delilah, saying that he would produce the completed work at the grand-ducal opera house in Weimar.

The composer tailored the role of Delilah for Pauline Viardot (1821–1910), but by the time the work was finished and could be staged, the singer was too old to perform it. She did, however, organize a private performance of the second act at a friend's home with the composer at the piano. A great admirer of the work, she hoped that this private performance would encourage the director of the Paris Opéra to mount a full production. Although Saint-Saëns completed the score in 1876, no opera houses in France displayed any desire to stage Samson and Delilah.

It was Liszt's support that led to the work being premiered in a German translation on December 2, 1877, in Weimar, where it was a resounding success. But there were many intervening years before it started to become popular in other cities. Its Paris premiere at the Éden-Théâtre did not take place until October 31, 1890, but audiences did give it a warm reception. Over the next two years, performances were staged in Bordeaux, Geneva, Toulouse, Nantes, Dijon, and Montpellier. When the Paris Opéra finally presented the opera on November 23, 1892, audience members and critics alike praised it.

On February 19, 2013, San Diego Opera presented Samson and Delilah in a traditional production directed by Leslie Koenig. The solid looking, effective scenery was designed by Douglas Schmidt and the soft colored costumes were originated by Carrie Robbins. All were constructed at San Francisco Opera. Koenig’s direction told the story in a straightforward manner and made no attempt to update or change the setting from the borders of Judah, Dan, and Philistia in the late twelfth or early eleventh century BCE.

Clifton Forbis was a dramatic Samson who showed us the wages of his character’s sins. Vocally, he started off slowly, but it is a long role and his pacing was good after the first scene. His best singing was heard during the poignant third act aria, ‘Vois ma misère, helas’. Tall and slim Nadia Krasteva was a sensual, seductive Delilah who fully captured her man when she sang ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (My Heart Opens at your Voice). Her voice had a purple velvet sound and the low notes of her chest voice were exquisite. As the High Priest of Dagon, Anooshah Golesorki commanded the stage as he sang with a stentorian voice. His second act duet with Krasteva was quite memorable.

Gregory Reinhart was a compelling Old Hebrew and Mikhail Svetlov a fiery Abimilech. Doug Jones, Scott Sikon, and Greg Fedderly gave interesting portrayals as Philistines. Since the composer originally thought to write this work as an oratorio, the chorus is very important. Under the direction of Charles F. Prestinari, the San Diego Opera Chorus sang Saint-Saens’ rousing music with great gusto. Conductor Karen Keltner is an expert on both French language and French music, so she coached the singers’ diction in addition to leading the orchestra in this idiomatic performance. She brought out Saint-Saens’ love for the exotic and her interpretation was particularly impressive in the ‘Bacchanal’. Her tempi were well thought out and the playing was rich and translucent. Kenneth von Heidecke’s choreography was fun to watch and the enticing music made the entire audience want to join the dance.

Maria Nockin

Cast and Production Information

Clifton Forbis, Samson; Nadia Krasteva, Delilah; Mikhail Svetlov, Abimelech; Anoosha Golesorki, High Priest of Dagon; Scott Sikon and Doug Jones, Philistines; Greg Fedderly, Philistine Messenger; Gregory Reinhart, Old Hebrew; Karen Keltner, conductor; Leslie Koenig, director; Kenneth von Heidecke, choreographer; Charles F. Prestinari, chorus master; Douglas Schmidt, scenery; Carrie Robbins, costumes; Gary Marder, lighting design. San Diego Opera, Civic Theater, Tuesday, February 19, 2013.