Samson had form by the time he fell for Delilah. The long-haired Israelite warrior had already transgressed with a woman in the next village, and slept with a harlot. Delilah the Philistine was his undoing. This archetypal story of a hero with a fatal flaw has inspired paintings and films but only one well-known opera, by Camille Saint-Saëns. His Samson et Dalila (1877), a French spectacle on a grand scale, was last staged at Covent Garden in 2004. The work is praised as the composer’s masterpiece, and in the same breath derided for its sacred-profane sensuality. Anyone tending towards the second opinion, which until last week included me, should get to the Royal Opera House at speed.
Covent Garden’s new production, conducted by Antonio Pappano, directed by Richard Jones and designed by Hyemi Shin, with lighting by Andreas Fuchs, presents the work with rigour and restraint, as well as the expected passion. It exposes, with exciting detail, the qualities of this piece. Musically the performance is a revelation, the Royal Opera orchestra on fire. These players rarely sound less than good, but on occasion they reach a different level of prowess. This was one. Pappano’s love of the score communicated itself both to them and through them.
In the South Korean tenor SeokJong Baek (replacing Nicky Spence, who withdrew earlier in the year after an injury), the Royal Opera has found a new talent, making his company and role debut as Samson. He has pinging top notes and no weak parts to the voice; he can also sing well in French, arguably the hardest operatic language for any non-native speaker. The Latvian Elīna Garanča is a seasoned Dalila (this is her fourth production), but she has no shortage of vocal allure and all the hot, frisky physicality required for this famous mezzo-soprano role.
Chorus and the rest of the small cast, with Łukasz Goliński (High Priest) and Goderdzi Janelidze (Rabbi) each giving sterling performances, shone. The work starts like an oratorio (following in the footsteps of Handel’s Samson), with fugue and chant and solemnity. Act 2 is an all-out voluptuous love scene for the title characters, while the last act turns to operatic high drama. The shorn and blinded Samson seeks redemption while the Philistines, partying for their lives, celebrate their idol, Dagon.
In Hyemi’s design, which uses portable constructions to suggest public and private spaces, Dagon is depicted as a vast cartoon figure, brandishing cash till in one hand and poker chips in the other. Every visual detail is meticulous, from the texture of the corrugated wall or Dalila’s house to the wood-grained interior of the Philistines’ quarters, to the rafters of the quasi-temple. As ever, Jones concentrates on character and motives. All is crystal clear, including Dalila’s sudden rejection of Samson.
This is a challenge for the chorus, who have to swap musical styles several times, and must also dance (choreography by Lucy Burge, costumes Nicky Gillibrand): a touch of Busby Berkeley, a touch of Latin, impressively drilled. At the end, as they indulge in bacchanalian revels, they are suddenly parted by an external force: Samson, his strength renewed. Up through the crowd he climbs, building his own stairway to paradise, before destroying the temple and all within. It’s a grand finale to a great show. I can’t think why I ever had a problem with this piece.
The Norwegian star Lise Davidsen used to think she was a mezzo-soprano who was good at baroque music. Her voice teacher said no, she was a soprano who should train in romantic opera, a medium she scarcely knew. Now in her mid-30s, she is in global demand – especially in German repertoire, Wagner and Richard Strauss – with the great Italian roles ahead of her. She has might and volume as well as ringing purity, with brilliance at the top but also the golden lower tones of the mezzo she once was. This is a rare voice type indeed.
The tenor Freddie De Tommaso, 29, was born in Tunbridge Wells to an English mother and an Italian father, and has absorbed the sound of Puccini, Verdi and Neapolitan song since birth. He sings it with the natural idiom, the slight bite in the ornaments, the gleam, that this music requires. Like Davidsen, he moved upwards, having started as a baritone. And like Davidsen, he is described as “a voice of the future”, though they are both already voices of now and can pack the Barbican accordingly.
The pair sang a varied recital with the versatile pianist James Baillieu conjuring the full orchestral sounds of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Giordano, Tosti and Loewe. Each showed off their formidable top notes – who doesn’t love a top C – but these two singers are yet more persuasive in lyricism, and storytelling from the heart. Their duet from Léhar’s The Merry Widow (Lippen Schweigen), De Tommaso shyly taking Davidsen’s hand, the pair then bravely if tentatively waltzing, brought the house down. No help from Samson required.
Star ratings (out of five)
Samson et Dalila ★★★★
Lise Davidsen and Freddie De Tommaso with James Baillieu ★★★★