ARTS

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January 27, 2004

Arias endear audience to century-old opera

In a concert review, it's risky business to pronounce something good. If you don't disparage at least two out of three performances you review, your criticism loses credibility. You gain the reputation of being naïve and too easy to please, and everyone ignores you. The surest way to acquire fame is to brilliantly demolish something deemed brilliant, and the art of damning with faint praise appears to be the ultimate sign of erudite sophistication. Having said that, I am prepared to state for the record that the recent performance of Camille Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila at the Chicago Lyric Opera was excellent. You may quote me on this.

Such rash certainty is inspired by the beautiful music; superbly executed vocal performances; stunning choreography; impressive staging; and the lithe, expressive orchestra. However, true to my calling as a critic, I have some minor quibbles for which I'll deduct perhaps half a point out of five.

First, the composer: Charles Camille Saint-Saëns, born on October 9, 1835 in Paris, was a child prodigy. Hailed as the Mozart of his time, he made his first public appearance at five, accompanying Beethoven violin sonatas. His formal debut came at the age of ten. He deeply admired the classic styles of Mozart and Beethoven, and, in his own words, pursued "the chimera of purity of style and perfection of form." He went from being an ardent admirer of Wagner to his most vehement critic, for he considered Bizet and himself members of the last bastion of the classical tradition, holding the tide of Wagnerism at bay.

Berlioz once said of Saint-Saëns, "He knows everything but lacks inexperience." This sums up the charges laid at his doorstep. The allegation of a "lack of emotional depth" is a popular one (George Bernard Shaw's patronizing description of Saint-Saëns's work as "graceful knick-knacks and barcarolles" comes to mind). I disagree. His music is charming, sophisticated, flawlessly constructed, and expressive. At its finest, it integrates technical virtuosity; terpsichorean beauty; and fiery, passionate power to an extent seldom achieved. Although perhaps not an Orpheus or Homer, he was an Arion with the persuasion of Demosthenes. As evidence, I point to Thursday's performance of the aria "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" and the famous Bacchanale. Specifically, contrast the latter with the fire music in Verdi's Otello.

I see that I'm at risk of making a biographical sketch, so to cut a long (and very interesting) story short, much like Demosthenes, Saint-Saëns achieved meteoric fame, but lost it towards the end of his life. He died in Algeria on December 16, 1921, having lost favor with the majority of his audience as the tide of musical fashion turned towards Debussy, Ravel, and the innovations of Les Six.

Samson et Dalila is his most intentionally famous work. I say intentionally, because although his Carnival of the Animals is more widely known, he did not intend it for public performance. It was a mere musical frolic, and Le Cygne was the only piece in that suite he considered fit for general consumption (it makes one wonder if he had bad judgment or if the rest of the world has bad taste). The story of Samson et Dalila is very simple and mirrors the Biblical version. It is one of history's ironies that Saint-Saëns, an atheist, eventually enshrined it in music. It contains some of the most gorgeous and voluptuously beautiful material written for musical theatre. It was originally conceived as an oratorio, but the librettist convinced him that the deeply dramatic nature of the plot and music would be better presented in an opera.

On to the performances. The tessitura of Samson is baritone-like—requiring a controlled and mellifluous voice—and José Cura seems imminently suited to the role. Although his entrance in the first act was slightly tame, he soon picked up steam during the confrontation with Abimélech (Tigran Martirossian, who did a very good job singing this rather under-imagined part). Samson had some fine passages before his tone swung to hectoring and slightly overdone. His psychological struggle with Dalila was powerful, scorching, and intense (the acting would have been better had they realized that groveling is not the only way to express despair). Cura's voice is at its dramatic best when he faces the Philistines in the temple of Dagon and implores his god to grant him strength. Proud, repentant, and vengeful, the monologue "Vois ma misère, hélas!" and his prayer—punctuated by mocking laughs from the Philistines—was utterly gripping.

The orchestra and Cura rose to heights of grandeur during his wrenching cadence "Je t'aime." Lightning flashed, thunder rolled, trumpets blared, and the music swelled forebodingly at every ensuing utterance of blasphemy. This culminated in a thunderous wave of fury when Samson betrays his people and is betrayed in turn. Although the orchestra created a very convincing and powerful buildup, it seemed to become suddenly uncertain at last moment, and the climax of Act II was less dramatic than one was led to expect.

Olga Borodina's Dalila was perfect. No reservations. Her voice has a seductively dusky lower range and a clear, richly coloured upper range. She is achingly vulnerable in her first aria, "Printemps qui commence," when she appeals to her former love for Samson. Although this is meant to be a deception, one can hear lingering notes of nostalgia and remnants of genuine passion. In the recitative/aria (Act II) and the exchange with the high priest, Borodina reveals Dalila's cold calculative side and her confidence in her power over men. She sings with a concentrated, poisonous fury that makes one's blood run cold. This is not an adversary you ever want against you!

She reaches her peak in the third aria, "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix," using every resource at her command: persuasion, tears, guilt, implorations, and curses to break through his resolve. She drops her singing voice for an outright scream of scorn and derision at the end of her aria and sweeps majestically out of Samson's sight. Samson simply had no chance.

Jean-Philippe LaFont played a brilliantly muted, subdued, shadowy high priest, imbuing the character with pure, chilling evil. The orchestra performed some of its finest accompaniment here, with skin-tingling pizzicati and sinisterly mutated motifs.

The chorus was one of the best I've heard in a long time. Their diction was clear, their timbre full and expressive. They attained beautiful homogeneity, making the music swell with power—my commendations to the chorus master, Donald Palumbo.

Emmanuel Villaume did a magnificent job as conductor, bringing out the score's luscious melodies, the brooding evil, the ecstasy, and the pain. The music was never saccharine or trite, as Saint-Saëns can so easily become if mishandled even slightly. Mozartian clarity with white-hot passion abounded.

Nit picking might suggest that the music could have used a smoother legato line at certain points in Act I and a little more abandon at the end of Act II. The Bacchanale was absolutely gorgeous. Again, no reservations. It was perfected with wild, saturnalian dancing; superb choreography; and stunning, sinuous orchestral playing.

The sets were impressive—the best being the temple of Dagon with its terrifying idol and altar. The retreat in the vale of Sorek, done in passionate roseate hues, worked very well. However, the last moment of the opera—in which Samson brings down the temple on the Philistines—could have been more dramatically done. The staging was obviously trying to work with the concept of stylized, slow-motion destruction, and this might have worked had the process been slightly better timed. However, the debris came down too slowly to be authentic and too quickly to be metaphoric.

My overall verdict: very good. Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila at the Chicago Lyric Opera is definitely worth an evening.