Dallas — French opera continues to make a comeback after it partially vanished from American opera houses in the 1970s and ’80s and audiences are rediscovering the riches to be found there. One is Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. You will wait a long time before you see a better production than the production that opened The Dallas Opera’s 2017-18 season on Friday at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House.
The well-known story, which comes from the Old Testament book of Judges, chapters 13-16, falls in a long line of tales about a hero with extraordinary gifts and a prominent vulnerability, from Achilles’ heel to Superman and Kryptonite.
It also contains a wealth of sins: prostitution, avarice, lust, murder, and torture, to name a few. Dalila accepts money to seduce Samson to find out the secret of his great strength. (Spoiler alert: It’s in his hair; think of the myriad bodice-ripper covers of a virile man with luxurious locks.) Lust appears when Samson finds himself ensnared by the seductress and eschews his duty as the leader of the Israelites. Revenge and murder comes when the blinded, wounded and abused Samson regains his strength one last time and collapses the temple on all assembled for revelry and wild sexuality.
Adults have used this story for generations to warn younger generations about the effects of profligacy.
It would be a sin to miss this production, which is staged by German director Bruno Berger-Gorski and features Clifton Forbis and Olga Borondina in the title roles.
Russian singer Borodina is a nearly perfect Dalila. Vocally, you can get lost in the depth of her rich mezzo-soprano voice. Her passage into chest voice is invisible and I am not sure that she didn't take the lowest notes in her middle register voice. The character has power, which is intoxicating in itself, and Borodina practically coos her seduction arias—especially the most famous excerpt of the entire opera, “Mon coeure s'ouvre a ta voix.” She has the power to shake the rafters and a glorious pianissimo that floats over the orchestra. Who could resist?
Dallas-based Forbis is one of the great heldentenors of our generation. In each act, it takes a short while for him to get control of his huge voice, but once he does it is fantastic. Clarion high notes ring out and fill the opera house.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Baritone Richard Paul Fink makes a formidable High Priest of Dagon. Bass-baritone Ryan Kuster is terrific as the Old Hebrew and baritone Michael Chioldi brings Abimélech to life.
The dancers from Dallas Black Dance Theatre, choreographed by Nycole Ray (see an interview with her here), are marvelous and represent another collaboration of Dallas-based arts groups that General Director and CEO Keith Cerny loves. She even managed to convincingly stage an orgy with her slow-motion choreography. Under the able direction of Alexander Rom, the chorus is superb. Stage director Berger-Gorski keeps the action moving without having it look busy and gives the chorus individual identities. Too often, they are just “the chorus.”
One curious visual is a group of dancers under a covering of tulle, which created much conversation at intermission and after the opera on opening night. What were they supposed to be? Comments ranged from a group of angels, while others thought they were Samson's demons.
The sets and costumes are from different productions but work well together. The sets, designed by Peter Dean Beck, came from the Pittsburgh Opera and the costumes were created by Carrie Robins for the San Francisco Opera.
Dallas Opera music director Emmanuel Villaume deserves his own paragraph. Being French, he has a personal experience to bring to French music. On Friday he never once covered the stage, no matter how big the climaxes were. The most remarkable thing, however, is what he does between the vocal lines. In his hands, these brief passages lead us from one thought to another, setting up the next line. It thusly supports the singers and leads the audience through the plot during conversational moments. Very few, if any, conductors do such a thing, which makes it all the more obvious when Villaume does it. The orchestra responded beautifully to his expressive beat patterns, but he was not rigid. He gave the singers freedom to sing the opera the way they wanted while keeping a tight grip on the forward motion of Saint-Saëns’ glorious score.
Hearing him do this in such a subtle manner has changed my entire concept of how opera should be conducted.
You owe it to yourselves to get a ticket. Visually and musically, Samson et Dalila is a not-to-be-missed triumph.