Opening night came on a Sunday afternoon for Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saëns. It’s an opera not seen in Washington for ages, and, headlined by the ravishing J’Nai Bridges, the event was highly anticipated. The production moved like a rolling dreamscape, an opera for the senses – and especially the heart.
We hear a deep chord from the orchestra and the Chorus cry out the first word, “God!” (“Dieu d’Israel, écoute la prière!”) It is a lamentation from the Hebrews, a powerful oratorio from a people enslaved and broken by their Philistine oppressors. Conductor John Fiore builds musical line upon line, pulling from the Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra unprecedented power in a stirring universal cry of humanity itself, “Is it your will to have us suffer so?”
We see lighting against the back wall that seems to pulse a fiercely bold magenta wash. Projections on downstage surfaces contain a blue and black swirling abstract image. Does it signify extreme weather of a battered earth in extremis? A robed Samson, standing downstage in a pool of white light, seems a lonely moral giant. He slowly lifts his arms, petitioning God for the whole world.
The engine that propels us on this cosmic trip is the work of Projection Designer, the highly talented S. Katy Tucker, who blended abstracts with images from nature, now signifying the chaos playing out in nature, now the wrath of God. She painterly uses the backdrop, ceiling and floor throughout with constantly changing color signifying times of day but also emotional and psychic moods. At one point, magically, a puff of smoke conjures ghosts who fill the stage, or is it a trick of our own eyes that we are face to face with the wretched lives of those corralled in concentration camps?
Samson and Delilah closes March 21, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
There are live bodies too on stage, and we feel crammed with them, body touching body. What a force of people the WNO has amassed on stage, a veritable tribe!
This is an opera that takes its story from the Bible’s Book of Judges. The production pits the conquered Hebrews against the Philistines. It also deals with the choice between the desire for carnal love and what in the Old Testament God demanded (divine love and absolute devotion.) All this is wrapped up in the confrontation between the very different personalities of Samson, chosen by God, and Delilah, the Philistine princess, who seeks revenge on the man who gave her up to follow his God and who will seduce him in order to destroy him.
The talented cast is made up of several artists who are making their WNO debut, including the two leads. The moment Roberto Aronica as Samson and J’Nai Bridges as Delilah began to sing, both proved they were simply at another, higher level than what we’ve heard yet this spring.
Aronica is a mighty powerful presence on stage. He fills the role’s required heroic style without stiffness. From wherever on stage he sings, the Italian tenor vocally fills the Opera House with ease and possesses that extra gear that, when he shifts up, the sound seems to penetrate your soul.
The statuesque Bridges brings not only her physical charms and seductive beauty to this role but her exceptional dark full sound that is exactly suited to one of the canon’s greatest mezzo roles. She plays the character’s different colors exceedingly well. In Act I she girlishly and brightly approaches Samson to entice the hero to rendezvous with her. She joins a stage full of dancing figures and sings with distinction the famous mezzo aria, “Printemps qui commence.”
Later, the mask drops and we watch the “real” Delilah emerge. The seduction scene is operatic high drama at its best. A calm night turns tense and menacing. J’Nai grabs the scene, making it her opera with her exquisite rendition of “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix.” She first plays coy and welcoming, then desperate and needy, and finally ferocious in her taunting cruelty. Aronica tries to fight her off but grows ever more agitated and torn. The struggle ends behind the stories-high silk bed-curtains, where the deal is sealed, as Samson succumbs to Delilah’s amorous charms. We know then what is to come.
The opera is full of movement and ballets, and choreographer Eric Sean Fogel rightly deserves sharing the directorial limelight for his impressive contribution. He has wisely chosen not to borrow stereotyped middle-east belly dancing and maybe only a smidge from Egyptian hieroglyphic art. He has found an almost original contemporary dance vocabulary to recreate “pagan” dancing. Fogel also defined for me a whole new way to work with a chorus – not by giving the ensemble specific business and engaging everyone in personal story-telling – but having the Chorus simply move constantly and subtly arms, hands, legs, a shift of weight. This created a rolling sea of moving parts, never distracting, always shifting and endlessly fascinating. A chorus of vertical bodies and inexpressive clumps was thus totally averted, and with no time-consuming rehearsals and drills necessary.
We have strong performances throughout this cast. Tómas Tómasson has one important scene in Act I but with a dark vocal richness and impressive stage presence, he makes his mark in the work. Baritone Noel Bouley executes the role of High Priest with commanding strength, and he successfully pushes forward the dramatic tension as he finagles with Delilah to get them working “as one” to bring down the mighty Samson. Peter Volpe, Matthew Pearce, Samuel J. Wiser and Joshua Blue all add vocal legitimacy to this splendid production.
The set by Erhard Rom, which does double duty for the other production in rep, Don Giovanni, serves this stage world well with its walls, ramp, and overhead skylight grid coming together into a pleasing whole. The costumes are gorgeous in an imagined mighty civilization, many of which were designed originally by Michael Scott but have added additional design by Timm Burrow.
Peter Kazaras has directed a production that has size, weight, and majesty. (yet never feels pompous or “Hollywood.”) He has kept the style heroic through the defined gestures and characters’ movements that are minimal and clean. At the same time, curiously, the staging never feels static, because the “universe” by means of the visuals is always moving, including the projections and the shifting color lighting by designer Robert Wierzel, who has used a bold and stunning palette that feels as if it has its own character arc.)
The juxtaposition of an ancient Biblical story with the high-tech display works to convey an ambitious vision of the cosmos and expanded sense of time. Kazaras and team never back away from taking on “the big” themes: man’s struggle to repair a broken relationship with God, catastrophic events in nature as a sign of this broken relationship and man’s failure to do the right thing, personal surrender and abdication of one’s own desires to be at one with something greater than oneself, and what it takes to save a people and heal a world. All this and more Kazaras has successfully rolled into this work.
Aronica wins over our hearts as we see and hear this amazing hero – broken, blinded, pitiable, and chained to a millstone while an orb projected behind him stops time. He has one chance to stand up against evil and greed and put personal desires and ambitions behind him. He finds his strength, willing to make himself a sacrifice to save his people and the world.
It may be a story that seems as old as time but it also feel fresh and relevant.
Samson and Delilah. Composed by Camille Saint-Saëns. Libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire. Conducted by John Fiore. Directed by Peter Kazaras. Associate Director and chorographer Eric Sean Fogel. Set Designed by Erhard Rom. Costumes Designed originally by Michael Scott with additional design by Timm Burrow. Lighting Designed by Robert Wierzel. Projections by S. Katy Tucker. Fight Direction by Casey Kaleba. With J’Nai Bridges, Roberto Aronica, Noel Bouley, Tómas Tómasson, Peter Volpe, Matthew Pearce, Samuel J Wiser, Joshua Blue, and Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.