San Diego Opera Presents “Samson and Delilah”

Sunday, February 18
Review by David Gregson
All photos copyright 2007 by Ken Howard. Photo ID’s at end of review.

“If it were anything else, it wouldn’t be allowed through the mail,” my grandfather used to say. He was talking about the Bible.

The Old and New Testaments combined are packed with lurid sexuality – a fact that has not gone without extensive exploitation by Hollywood. Assuming a notorious posture of fake religiosity, film director Cecil B. DeMille squeezed big money out of such bloated biblical epics as The Sign of the Cross (1932), Samson and Delilah (1949), and two versions of The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956). For the latter, DeMille lovingly recreated orgiastic frolics around the Golden Calf, and in Samson and Delilah he gave the late 1940s one of its few great femme fatale characters (played by Hedy Lamarr) to appear in Technicolor. Fatal women were among the defining characteristics of film noir, a genre that was flourishing at the time and was – er – “biblical” only in quite another sense of the term. (The expression, “They knew each other biblically,” establishes yet another connection between the holy texts and sexuality.)

Before Hollywood, however, there was opera – and probably nobody milked as much sensual sensationalism from the Bible as Camille Saint-Saëns in his Samson et Dalila (1877), which in the final act raises the titillation level to new heights with an extended bacchanal beneath the statue of the pagan deity, Dagon. (All pagan gods should be called Dagon, I think.) Things reach their apex of eroticism (and silliness) in a blasphemous orgiastic dance for which the composer wrote endearing and unforgettable trashy music. It’s really the most hilarious bit of faux Middle Eastern hootchy-kootchy ever penned by a supposedly respectable master. Yes, Richard Strauss totally trumps this number with Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, but his music is actually good! Still, Strauss must win the palm for tastelessness by giving us a biblical femme fatale who goes into a 20-minute sexual-sadistic frenzy over a severed head.

Let’s face it folks – the opera Samson and Delilah is kitsch. It’s hokum in excelsis. It’s high and low camp in an intoxicating fusion. It’s a peep show for the upper crust. And San Diego Opera knows just how to put this one on! So you’d better hurry before it closes up February 25.

What the SDO does just right begins with Douglas Schmidt’s pricelessly vulgar production designs, ones that have been around for a number of years already. The vistas are oddly Babylonian-Assyrian, but what the heck! Why not? They’re sometimes very pretty, more often good and gaudy – and it’s a grand tradition for us to get the Middle East wrong. Certainly Hollywood always did. Really, why shouldn’t Gaza look this way? (Let’s just hope no local protest group figures out that the horribly evil, treacherous Philistines are really Arab-Palestinians!)

I have seen these Schmidt sets and Carrie Robbins’ delicious costume designs as well (if I am not mistaken) in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The whole look of the show is very Hollywood, and this seems to fit. The original silent film Ben Hur (1925) makes a very similar impression, right down to the Burne-Jones inspired flower girls and the ornate, cluttered visuals. (By an apparent coincidence, this early version of Ben Hur was projected in Copley Symphony Hall last Friday night, with the San Diego Symphony providing a live accompaniment.)

Stage director Lotfi Mansouri seems to be in his element with this show. (I thought he was way off his game in the recent Boris Godunov.) The crowds of miserable Israelites and despicable Philistines make an impressive picture – and, by the way, they are superbly represented vocally thanks in part to SDO’s chorus master, Timothy Todd Simmons.
Meanwhile, choreographer Kenneth von Heidecke’s ballet sequences are appropriately dopey and old-fashioned (wouldn’t real bacchanals look a little less like French classical ballet?) – but, oh wonder of wonders, we are all spared the bare butts so that so often moon us from afar in the orgy scene. Displays of nudity are usually egregious and embarrassing in opera. The old Ben Hur, it must be said, has (blush!) bare breasts and at least one prominently naked arse! Anyhow, Heidecke went just far enough for this old prude.

Looking really gorgeous as usual is mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. She works overtime in being alluring and seductive. She is also a real bitch, laughing a mean old laugh, knocking a child to the floor and throwing wine in Samson’s face. Vocally, it’s a role that lies well for her, never taxing what many of us know to be her ragged upper range. It was not always so, but alas – such is the passage of time! Graves sang wonderfully well last night, considering – but compared with some of the great Delilah’s of yore (including Graves’ own), the sound was not plummy or big enough. I doubt very much, however, that anyone will be disappointed in her. She may be having difficulties, but she truly knows her way around the part.

Tenor Clifton Forbis is just about perfect for Samson in that this singer possesses a loud, heroic and penetrating voice. His is a sound I do not personally adore in tenors, but I do not know of many others who would be better at this part these days. Domingo, whom I have seen as Samson several times, may be the industry standard. Silken voiced lyrics can come to grief with this music.

The cast includes the terrific American baritone Greer Grimsley as the High Priest of Dagon, and further benefits from a number of good supporting performances: José Gallisa as an Old Hebrew, Joseph Hu as a messenger, Bryan Register as the First Philistine, Scott Sikon as the Second Philistine, and Philip Skinner as Abimelech.

I have enormous respect for conductor Karen Keltner on whose strong but diminutive shoulders some of SDO’s most challenging projects rest. Berg’s Wozzeck! Yipes! Good luck girl! Saint-Saëns, though, represents a very different sort of musical puzzle, one that the composer complicates by seeming aware on a certain level of his own vulgarity. He tries to compensate for this in passages of high seriousness, such as the opening fugal chorus. The music is full of tacky sensual blandishments. I feel Keltner is being too deferential to the singers and should be taking a more aggressive, propulsive stance against a score prone to lull itself into languorousness. Otherwise she is doing an excellent job.

The coup de theatre of this production, of course, comes in the final two seconds – the collapse of the Temple of Dagon. This effect, as a matter of fact, may outdo the one in the DeMille movie and is probably worth the price of admission.

1. American tenor Clifton Forbis as Samson rallies the Israelites to revolt in San Diego Opera’s production of Samson and Delilah. Photo © Ken Howard
2. American mezzo soprano Denyce Graves sings Delilah and American tenor Clifton Forbis sings Samson in San Diego Opera’s production of Samson and Delilah. Photo © Ken Howard
4.The Temple of Dagon from San Diego Opera’s production of Samson and Delilah. Photo © Ken Howard
3. Denyce Graves. Photo © Ken Howard

Camille Sait-Saens Samson and Delilah
February 17 at 7 pm
February 20 at 7 pm
February 23 at 8 pm
February 25 at 2 pm
Samson: Clifton Forbis
Delilah: Denyce Graves
High Priest of Dagon: Greer Grimsley
Abimelech: Philip Skinner
An Old Hebrew: José Gallisa
Messenger: Joseph Hu
First Philistine: Bryan Register
Second Philistine: Scott Sikon
Conductor: Karen Keltner
Director: Lotfi Mansouri
Choreographer: Kenneth von Heidecke

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