Friday 3 June 2022

Samson et Dalila at the Royal, or, I'm Sorry, Mr Jones, We're Fresh Out of Pillars

 I have a recollection of listening to a classic recording of this opera, I suspect one of a number of opera CDs inherited from a beloved uncle, and finding it enjoyable. There's certainly a lot of beautiful music in the piece, and I'm not sorry to have heard it live, but it is also not a mystery to me that it has largely fallen out of the repertoire.

The first problem lies with the way Saint-Saens structures the piece. The drama has an episodic feel, and tension both musically and dramatically has a tendency to drop. The balance between ensemble spectacle and exploration of the principal characters doesn't seem quite right. Most seriously there appears to be a glaring omission to stage a key plot point - that is so far as I could judge Dalila never does get the secret of Samson's power out of him at the climax of Act Two thus making it inexplicable that he can't escape from the mob.

That scene is one of several that isn't particularly helped by the staging, of which more shortly. But, first a word or two about the musical standards which were generally high. The vocal highlight for me was SeokJung Baek's Samson - to my ear he had the heroic ringing tenor the role requires and his voice carried effectively throughout up to my perch in the Amphitheatre. I also found him a compelling stage presence, and one which matched well with his vocal style. To my ear Elena Garanca was a shade below. She often sang very beautifully, and at key moments was in possession of striking vocal power. But at other times to my ear she didn't always come over the orchestra. I also thought she wasn't entirely helped by the direction, particularly in the last act - I assume that throwing off the jewellery and watching in what might have been distress from a distance was intended to indicate some degree of remorse but it didn't come across entirely convincingly. The supporting roles were all well taken, and the chorus sing strongly (despite not being very well directed).

In the pit the Royal Opera Orchestra played for Pappano with a great deal of beauty and passion. To my ear it was clear that Pappano loved the score but I thought he loved it perhaps a bit too much. As a work it strikes me as not dissimilar to Smyth's The Wreckers which I saw at Glyndebourne the previous weekend. Neither score, most of the time, generates enough of its own forward dramatic momentum, so the conductor must keep things moving. Ticciati at Glyndebourne, to my considerable surprise, did so. Pappano tended too often to linger.

And so we come to Richard Jones's production. It starts, movement-wise, solidly, if a bit obviously, with various individuals being set upon by the regime's soldiers. As a whole, until the last act, I didn't hate it but it never really caught fire. It looks much of the time as if the House is on an economy drive. The main piece of set is a very small room for Dalila which has to be wheeled about to give us the inside and outside of the house. The inside never feels claustrophobic but rather simply constricting for the performers. There's the usual garish Jones wallpaper. When one is noticing the set moving about all the time a production has, I think, failed. There's an awful lot of chorus parading in the show, none of which particularly grips here - the worst moment is the celebration in the temple in Act 3 - the music has a certain G&S tinge to it at this point, and the choreography (by Lucy Burge) rather reinforced the feeling that we had wandered into HMS Pinafore. We'll draw a veil over what my brother referred to afterwards as the Smurf except to say that it adds nothing. 

But the biggest problem comes in the final moments. Having now seen this staging I conclude that there are two ways to destroy the temple - either you do it all extremely simply, probably with lighting and a fairly bare stage. Or you need a really impressive set. Jones's approach falls between two stools, and the feeble attempt at a collapsing ceiling reminds one of the kind of easily escapable traps that 60s TV heroes had to get out of each week. The problem is compounded by the fact that Jones has earlier in the act had Samson handcuffed to one of the proscenium pillars thus suggesting they are part of the temple - yet, needless to say, they do not collapse. 

I'm glad to have had an opportunity to hear the work live and the performance is musically sufficiently fine to make it worth catching, especially if like me you've never heard it live. The production for me, apart from the failure of the last scene, is serviceable if uninspired. Altogether certainly a much pleasanter afternoon than the previous day's dreary reinvented Young Vic Oklahoma

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