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Camille Saint- Saëns:Samson et Dalila
12 Aug 2011

Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila in Antwerp

Bonus features on opera DVDs usually get generic names, such as “Interview” or “Backstage with…”

Camille Saint- Saëns:Samson et Dalila

Samson: Torsten Kerl; Dalila: Marianna Tarasova; High Preist: Nikola Mijalovič. Symphony Orchestra and Choir of Vlaamse Antwerp/Ghent. Conductor: Tomáš Netopil.

EuroArts DVD 2058628

$24.99  Click to buy

This 2009 staging of Saint-Saens’s reliably goofy Biblical tunefest Samson et Dalila takes the prize for the most apt and amusing title for a bonus feature about the directors (yes, two in this case) of a “Regie” staging: “Amir Zuabi and Omri Nitzan explain the production and staging.” In the more obscure and complex Regie productions, such a bonus feature would probably pay big dividends. In the case of Zuabi and Nitzan’s take on Samson et Dalila, an explanation proves superfluous. One can admire the fact that one director is Israeli (Nitzan) and the other Palestinian (Zuabi), and that they have worked together to update the Biblical setting of the opera to the contemporary Middle East. Nevertheless, what is actually onstage (and before the cameras) is no more challenging to the average intellect than a traditional staging of this deliciously silly but potent opera.

Act one still betrays its origin as an oratorio, with the chorus standing mid-stage, with very little movement. The dress is modern, with khaki battle jackets and long neck scarves serving to suggest a Mideast setting. Sets are minimal. Act two still focuses mainly on Dalila’s bed, albeit with the huge leaves of some desert flower around it (which oddly close on the prostrate Samson at act’s end). Act three is no temple but some sort of bizarre fashion-cum-armory show, with young beauties of both sexes in black underwear, carting bazookas and grenade launchers. Undoubtedly the directors expected to shock with the revised climax, which has Samson in a suicide bomber’s explosive jacket, ready to push the button to bring down the temple when a blackout ends the show. The shock is in how little effect is actually produced, since everything leading to that point has been so innocuous. One can only admire the optimism of the EU Commissioner “for External Relations” who composed a note reprinted in the booklet, claiming that this production will “spearhead…a successful and respectful inter-cultural dialogue.” Their Euros at work!

Given all that, any opera performance comes down to musical quality to prove its worth, and this performance actually has a fair amount going for it. After a few unsteady moments at the beginning, conductor Tomáš Netopil gets a rich, precise performance from the Vlaamse musicians. Don’t be surprised to hear some arpeggio sections that suggest Saint-Saens as a precursor to late 20th century Minimalist composers. As Samson, tenor Torsten Kerl is in fine voice, easily reaching up to the higher sections, and with a commanding strength throughout his range. Marianna Tarasova’s Dalila has a bit too much of that hooty quality not unknown in this part, but she is comfortable in the role. In the only other part with a real opportunity to make an impression, Nikola Mijalovič as the High Priest puts out a handsome flow of sound, even while, apparently, sodomizing Dalila. Don’t ask.

Strict traditionalist may get their feathers in a bunch over this production, but really the directors flatter themselves about their political risk-taking. In the end, it’s still Samson at Dalila — for good and bad. Catch this for some decent singing and a tasty performance of the score by the orchestra.

Chris Mullins

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