The Met’s second HD telecast of this season was a repeat of the opera that opened the company’s current season, Saint-Saens’ biblical bodice ripper Samson et Dalila. The cast was the same as on opening night. Before getting to today’s performance, a few general thoughts about these broadcasts. Whoever narrates these presentations always remarks that there’s nothing like a live performance. Here are a few important differences between being in the audience at the Met or in a movie theater.
The most striking is the audio level. It’s much louder and in multi channel stereo at the cinema. If you go to the opera house for the first time, but after hearing a few or more of these broadcasts, you’re likely to think your hearing has suddenly gone bad. In the opera house you view the show from one vantage point, but can look anywhere you like. When watching an HD performance you get many vantage points, but must look where the video director wishes. Sweaty closeups of singers pretending to be 30 years younger than they are are the bane of these telecasts and, of course, there’s the popcorn. You can have ’em at one venue, but not the other.
Back to Samson and friend. This is the only one of Saint-Saens 12 operas to find a permanent, though far from center, place in the operatic repertory. He considered making it into an oratorio for a while before he decided that it would be better as an opera. It’s an uneven piece that varies from great beauty to arid stretches with patches of kitsch in between. The Met’s new production, directed by Darko Tresnjak, is strong on the kitsch. The sets look like an amalgam of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon and The Wizard of Oz. The choreography of the famous bacchanale was embarrassingly bad even by the standards of the opera house – see photo below. The destruction of the temple by the divinely inspired Samson was merely a flash of white light followed by the curtain
The success of this opera depends on the two title characters and the conductor and orchestra. The last first. Mark Elder led the Met’s splendid ensemble with vigor and panache. So everything was fine on the orchestral and accompanying front.
Samson requires a strong spinto tenor. Previous Met Samsons include Francesco Tamagno, Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Martinelli, Ramon Vinay, Mario Del Monaco, Jon Vickers, Richard Tucker, and Placido Domingo. All heavy hitters. Roberto Alagna is a lyric tenor who has forced his way into spinto parts that have coarsened his voice beyond repair. Today he was in better voice than in the prima in which he sounded as if his voice was about to quit entirely. He was mostly on pitch, but his high notes are gone. Fortunately, his part has only two. The first at the end of ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ started as a scream but settled, more or less on target. The second high note occurs at the very end of the opera. It was as open as the Great Plains and entirely from the throat. After this run of S&D, Alagna is due back for the February telecast of Carmen.
The Latvian mezzo, Elīna Garanča has been singing irregularly (67 performances) at the Met for more than 10 years. She’s a little stouter than when she first appeared at the house, but she remains a very attractive woman. Her voice is rich and voluptuous. It maintains it’s beautiful tone throughout its range. Her seduction of Samson in the 2nd Act was irresistible. The auditor had no problem understanding why the Old Testament hero chose her over God.
The rest of the cast did their jobs effectively. But they don’t have much interesting music. Particularly impressive was the Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as the Old Hebrew. He has appeared 64 times at the Met since 2011. His biggest part thus far is Ramfis in Aida. His large and focused voice deserves some bigger parts.
In summary, there’s not a whole lot to attract one to this production. Take away Garanča and there’s no reason to bother with it. If a big voiced tenor with control appears then I’d have a reason to recommend it, providing Garanča or her like were available.
Metropolitan Opera House
October 20, 2018
Samson et Dalila
Camille Saint-Saëns/Ferdinand Lemaire
High Priest…………….Laurent Naouri
Old Hebrew……………..Dmitry Belosselskiy
Set Designer……………Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer………..Linda Cho
Lighting designer……….Donald Holder
Video Director…………..Gary Halvorson
“She’s a little stouter than when she first appeared at the house, but she remains a very attractive woman.”
Why wasn’t your very first comment about Alagna…or ANY comment on Alagna, for that matter….about his physical attractiveness or how well he’s aged over the past ten years?You always offer honest, insightful descriptions of voice…much appreciated by this reader. But you consistently reserve assessment of physical appearance for the female singers. I’d respectfully suggest you re-think this old habit.
Having said that, I’m glad to hear your comments on opera-in-cinema vs live. I love that the Met series gives those of us out in the hinterlands the opportunity to see the world’s top singers, but I am always left frustrated by the format. Increasingly, it seems Halvorson wants to present opera as movie. This introduces a editorial element (external to the viewer) that is completely at odds with the spirit of live performance. And the essential spirit of opera is nothing if not live performance.
As performers and musicians and sets all vie for attention, each viewer gets to shape their own experience by choosing from the visual palette before them. It annoys me to no end when Halvorson decides I don’t need to see the other characters’ reactions during someone’s big aria.
I really wish they would strive to re-create the opera experience, not the movie experience, for the Met in HD series. I wouldn’t mind seeing someone else (besides Halvorson) take the helm and tackle that task.
(Suggestion to your web designer: enlarge the comment box at least enough so writers can see a whole sentence while composing it. This 1″ x 1/2″ box is very difficult to write in. If the objective is to limit comment length, simply apply a character limit.)
Beautifully said. I hate those close ups. What’s so great about seeing every mole, pore and pimple??? Some of my older opera videos are done so well encompassing reactions of all which adds so much depth.