A ten-day trip to New York provided the opportunity to sample some operas and concerts, starting with the Met Opera’s new production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. It is the Met’s fourth production of this classic, and one of four new productions among the 21 operas making up their 2018/19 season.
It is not just a new production; it marked the Met debuts of director Darko Tresnjak, set designer Alexander Dodge and costume designer Linda Cho. New productions always make me a bit anxious: I still recall that risible Masked Ball the AO did some years back, and a truly dreadful Die Entführung in Berlin in 2016, but this time all was quite acceptable. The setting was mercifully left in biblical times, and the sets, while stylised and based on a semicircular motif, were quite effective, as were the colourful and unchallenging costumes. The production itself was straight down the line, as it should be, and mercifully free of the sorts of gimmicks which are so often regarded as de rigueur these days.
Musically the production was first-rate. The cast was headed by tenor Roberto Alagna and the marvellous Latvian mezzo Elina Garanča, whom I was hearing for the first time. This was a return bout for the pair, after their success in the Met’s Carmenin 2007. Alagna shone as the conflicted Israelite leader Samson, torn between his duty to his people and his passion for the Philistine priestess, Dalila. It is a rather static role, indeed much of the opera is really an oratorio in disguise, but Alagna’s deft and seemingly effortless handling of the vocal part more than made up for this.
The real star, however, was Garanča as Dalila. It is a big part, with several major arias that we all know well. Moreover she is acting the part of the irresistible seductress when she (and we) know it is all a ruse to detach Samson from his people. Garanča, tall and with a commanding presence and a beautiful voice, was as ideal a Dalila as one could hope to see. Poor Samson didn’t stand a chance!
The production was conducted by Sir Mark Elder, who didn’t seem particularly stressed in extracting impeccable performances from the Met’s orchestra and chorus. And nor should he, as they are probably the best of their kind on the planet. Saint-Saëns’ score is rich, but this did not deter the denizens of the Met’s vast pit. The lengthy bacchanale at the centre of the last act was but the best of several orchestral highlights.
If I can be allowed one small quibble, I was sorry that instead of having Samson pull down the temple pillars in the closing moments, Tresnjak simply had him demonstrate his returning strength by snapping his chains. This was enough, apparently, to cause the large central statue of Dagon to dissolve into light and smoke.