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On Friday evening the Opera Company of North Carolina played Camille Saint-Saëns's extravaganza Samson et Delilah and Delilah won. The composer and his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire were in a fix similar to that of John Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost: The villains are much more interesting than the good guys. Fortunately, Saint-Saëns decided to give free reign to the Philistines, for whom he wrote the most and best music in the score. Poor Samson is one of the Bible's slow learners with his brain in his groin. In the biblical account, he continually gets entangled with the wrong women, and although he lies to Delilah on three separate occasions when she attempts to wheedle out of him the secret of his strength, immediately trying to use the information against him, he finally tells her the truth on the fourth encounter with disastrous results.
We must admit that we don't like this opera very much - it seldom moves much above a slow andante - but that lends all the more credit to OCNC in its ability to pull it off with panache. Thomasville native and Met star mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood, familiar to Triangle audiences for her steamy portrayal of Carmen in 2001, was in top form as she took on the role of yet another sexual predator. Samson, sung by tenor Gary Lakes was no match for her, sexually, dramatically or vocally, especially when he tried to act the hero in Act I. His voice was occasionally shaky, other times whiny (although he eventually has a lot to whine about).* Delilah's co-conspirator, the High Priest of Dagon, sung by baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi, was the evening's real male star. Their second act duet, in which they cook up the scheme to entrap Samson, was a real showstopper. Despite the gravity of their plan to save god and country, it is clear the High Priest, too, is not unaffected by Delilah's charms, projecting hot glances and sneaking a few subtle pawings during the course of their plotting.
The remaining roles are small but came off well, especially bass Herbert Eckhoff as the Old Hebrew and baritone Leonard Rowe as the Philistine functionary Abimelech. Both artists are familiar to local audiences, and Rowe just continues to improve over the years. The chorus plays a more hefty role than most of the soloists in this opera, doubling as tax-burdened Hebrews and the Philistines' soldiers and their degenerate male and female temple staff. They were obviously well trained by chorus master Jeffery Pollock and the anonymous French diction coach. While they were occasionally guilty of ragged entrances, their French was amazingly understandable. Their apparently aimless meandering around the stage as oppressed Hebrews in the opening scene was not their fault. And for those of you who were present and didn't understand what was going on with the procession with the wooden box, this is supposed to be the Ark of the Covenant, carried everywhere by the Hebrews from Mount Sinai until it is eventually enshrined in the Temple a few hundred years after Samson.
Special praise goes to the soloists from the Carolina Ballet who put on a Bacchanale show of the highest quality that even made you forget the hackneyed music. Ballets were an obligatory feature of all French opera - a requirement that drove Verdi crazy when he had to compose for Paris - but we'll bet Saint-Saëns never had it this good. Special kudos go to Timour Bourtasenkov, whose leaps and aerial spins were breathtaking.
As usual, OCNC Artistic Director Robert Galbraith scared up impressive sets to rent. The unifying device of opening all seven scenes with a transparent scrim and gradually bringing up the lights behind it during the first few moments was quite effective. The closing moment, the bringing down of the temple of Dagon, ends the opera so abruptly that we would even have been grateful for a couple of Rhine Maidens to musically cushion the crash landing.
The costumes, created for this production by Patricia A. Hibbert, represented another case in which the Philistines got the better deal, wearing enough gold lamé to outfit all of Las Vegas for at least a week. Garish and tasteless they were, but that's in character and has been part of the Philistine image through the ages; just ask Robert Schumann who invented the term to epitomize aesthetic tastelessness. The Hebrews were less well costumed, looking more like a troupe of unliberated Afghanis - although the head scarves for the women are consistent with Orthodox Jewish garb. Our vote for worst costume goes to Samson. His red and green striped belted robe to mid-calf and his long braid tied with a red bow, had him looking like something out of Haight Ashbury in the 60s. And he doesn't even try to dress up for his tryst with Delilah.
S & D requires a sizable orchestra, and since the NCSO was performing Friday night next door, Galbraith's pickings of orchestra players was somewhat limited. The strings, in particular the violas, sounded ragged at times, especially in the first act.
Galbraith always provides a pre-opera lecture. Friday's consisted of a panel of experts, including Duke musicologist Brian Gilliam, Judaic scholar Eric Meyers, the Rev. William Finlator, Muslim Community leader Wajeeh Bajwa and OCNC's Director of Development and Christian Scientist Cynthia Barnett. Each of the panelists presented an interpretation of the Samson and Delilah story in keeping with their scholarly and/or religious perspectives, a dialogue far to big to get off the ground in a half hour.
We applauding OCNC's latest triumph but are concerned that the Company is still unable to mount more than one production per year. The quality over quantity argument goes a long way, but many people would like to have their cake and eat it too, and the economic downturn doesn't promote growth in the arts.
Definition of a philistine: Someone who doesn't know what the word means.
* One advantage of publishing on line is that there is the opportunity for revision. One of us had occasion to attend Sunday's performance as well, and while we were rather hard on Gary Lakes in his Friday showing, his Sunday performance was so much better vocally that we felt it only fair to note it.