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 close-ups 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 its 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