By James L. Paulk
NEW YORK – “Drama in every breath” is the new marketing jingle for the Metropolitan Opera, which opened its season Sept. 17 with a new Darko Tresnjak production of Samson et Dalila featuring superstars Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča and conducted by Mark Elder. Heavily marketed and transmitted live to an audience in Times Square, it was a high-stakes affair for a company that has struggled with shrinking audience numbers and the firing of longtime music director James Levine. But the drama that unfolded onstage was neither triumph nor disaster. Visually and musically, it was an evening that combined heart-stopping beauty with frustration.
Samson might not be the most popular opera in the Met’s repertoire, but it’s easy to understand its appeal as a season-opener. It has all the trappings of French grand opera: big choruses, sexy dance numbers, major love scenes, big-time betrayal, and a terrific revenge finale in which Samson becomes a sort of male Brünnhilde or a suicide bomber, take your pick. Big stuff is what the Met does best, and Samson can be quite big.
Tresnjak won a Tony Award for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and his Anastasia is currently running on Broadway. This is his Met debut. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, had planned Samson as a co-production with the Paris Opera with Damiano Michieletto, a very busy, much-lauded Italian, as the director. But Gelb backed out after that production opened in Paris in 2016, turned off by the “bleakness” of Michieletto’s approach, which included modern dress, togas, and guns, and which garnered mostly negative reviews.
Tresnjak’s style is definitely not modern, and there isn’t a hint of the director-centric Regietheater so despised by a vocal faction of the Met audience. The sets, by Alexander Dodge, are functional, colorful, and acoustically helpful. The look is playfully kitschy, recalling the mix of Orientalism and modernism that surfaced in the ’50s and ’60s in Las Vegas and Hollywood. Costumes, by Linda Cho, are similarly whimsical and luxurious, with a slightly surreal edge.
Instead of a curtain we got a scrim with a filigree pattern suggesting handprints, code for slavery. As the opera opened, the scrim remained in place for a bit, slightly obscuring the action in a way that matched the score, then rising for a clearer view just as the chorus began building to a crescendo. A large and steep staircase spanned the stage between two circular towers, and the Israelites, arrayed in the foreground, were singing of their plight. The whole act is a series of arrivals and tableaus; so the set made sense as an efficient backdrop.
The second act takes us to a room in Dalila’s palace with metallic filigree walls, a curving staircase, and torchieres. The third takes place in a temple dominated by a gigantic statue of Dagon, the Philistine god, split into two halves. The back walls of the temple are designed like an opera house, with tiered boxes holding the elegantly costumed Philistines.
In a wildly athletic baccanale scene, choreographer Austin McCormick deployed nearly naked dancers to scale the walls like acrobats.
What kept this production from catching fire was the old-fashioned, rigid acting between the key players. Saint-Saëns’ original conception for Samson was as an oratorio, and that’s what this production sometimes felt like, owing to the lack of chemistry onstage. Garanča and Alagna are both celebrated for their acting skills, but on this night they seemed distant, unable to back up their vocal characterization with physical gestures. Some of this undoubtedly stems from the modern-day Met’s dual role. There’s the live audience in the theater. But there’s another, larger audience who will eventually see the performance via HD telecasts (not to mention the Times Square audience), and the needs of the camera, which can close in on small facial gestures, are not the same as those of someone sitting in row BB. The camera seems to be winning.
That said, the strength of Samson lies in Saint-Saëns’ luscious score, steeped in Orientalism and chromaticism, and it succeeds or fails on the strength of the musical forces, especially the two lovers.
In the first act, Garanča lacked the lush sound that is her signature. The higher notes were glorious, clear and unforced. But she was unable to conceal her effort in the lower register. I wonder if the role, which is comparable to Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore, might lie a bit low for her voice. Heraria was underwhelming: virtually inaudible at times when a deep chest voice was called for, but also failing to project the kind of dramatic certainty that normally is one of her strengths. She came into her own in the second act and dominated the opera in the third act. Her was a tour de force, sensual yet full of energy.
Alagna’s voice was similarly tenuous in the first act. He nailed “Arrêtez, ô mes frères” and seemed ready for a solid night of singing. Soon, though, he sounded hoarse, his high notes were pinched, and the vibrato had become a bit too noticeable. He seemed to overcome these problems, and by the second act he sounded much like the Alagna of a few years ago. Like Maria Callas, he has an uncanny way of conveying powerful emotions with his voice, even if the voice isn’t always a thing of perfect beauty. Here he showed us a tortured hero being destroyed by his passions, and it was all quite believable. But the voice betrayed him again, and by the end of the opera his top notes were ragged, especially the high C that concludes the opera.
The orchestra was in great form, but Elder’s decision to take things at a daringly slow pace robbed the opera of energy, especially in the first act. Still, his balances and textures were exemplary, as was the performance of the spectacular Met chorus.
In the days leading up to opening night, Gelb and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s new music director, announced a series of new initiatives: commissions from female composers (Missy Mazzoli and Jeanine Tesori), new venues including the Lincoln Center Theater, the Delacorte Theater, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and an expansion of the repertoire into new and overlooked operas. Nézet-Seguin spoke of “getting out of our building” and how “opera is for everyone.” Gelb described the efforts as part of an ongoing effort “to make the Met seem less elitist and more approachable.” But the vast sums of money needed to keep the Met going come mostly from those very elites, the glamorous patrons who entered the opera house via a red carpet complete with paparazzi, and who anted up for a swell dinner party following the opening night performance. The new Samson production, whatever its failures, seemed aimed directly at these constituents, and they responded with a standing ovation and bravos all around.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.