The three-act French opera Samson and Dalila, first performed in 1877, seemed like an odd choice to start the Dallas Opera's 2017-18 season, but Friday's opening-night performance proved that it has stood the test of time.
Composer Camille Saint-Saëns recognized that opera is all about drama, and Dallas Opera's interpretation had plenty to spare. Samson and Dalila, equal parts romance and tragedy, depicts the Biblical account of long-haired strongman Samson and his defeat at the hands of the wily, scissor-bearing seductress Dalila after she discovers his locks are the source of his strength.
The account comes from the 16th chapter of Judges, and Friday's staging, filled with Hebrew iconography and symbolism, showed Samson and the Israelites losing hope that God will save them from their captivity by the Philistines.
Director Bruno Berger-Gorski’s decision to open Act 1 with a crowd of bedraggled Israelites wandering in a circle made the story relevant. Several women were stripped away from the crowd and sent to an unknown fate as the rest of the people continued their aimless wandering. The sadness and desperation of the Israelites evoked thoughts of the countless persecuted refugee groups in today’s headlines.
The aptly classified "dramatic" tenor Clifton Forbis sang the title role of Samson. Forbis convincingly conveys Samson’s emotional state, which ranges from confident, God-fearing liberator to heartsick lover to defeated warrior. His physique makes him a believable Samson. Forbis’ voice was inherently powerful as he tried to persuade the Israelites of God’s faithfulness but demonstrated a restrained passion as his character confesses his love for the sultry Dalila.
Mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina sang Dalila, a role she has performed alongside Plácido Domingo. She smoldered in her Dallas debut Friday night. She effortlessly hit every note, and her poignant rendition of “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” was the musical highlight of the evening.
Forbis and Borodina had sufficient chemistry during Act 2's extended musical dialogue between them. Their voices blended well, making for a harmonious duet.
The chorus, which had a substantial role throughout, was particularly affecting in the second scene of Act 1 when the plaintive voices, accompanied by a subdued orchestra, sang a "hymn of joy, hymn of deliverance." Ryan Kuster as the Old Hebrew was especially sympathetic with a full and rich voice. Nycole Ray choreographed veil-draped dancers who appeared throughout the performance, adding a mysterious, shadowy element.
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The first two acts were flawless with high level acting and expressive singing by two opera superstars accompanied by the Dallas Opera orchestra, ably led by masterful musical director Emmanuel Villaume.
Saint-Saëns' Act 3 orchestral composition screams for an over-the-top orgy, which Berger-Gorski delivered. A large chorus of semiclothed orgy participants writhed around the stage and then engaged in a pagan ritual in which a fuzzy stuffed ram is sacrificed. The delighted onlookers dipped their hands in its blood and smeared it on their bodies or licked it off their hands.
Finally, a blind and shorn Samson (looking a little like The Dude in The Big Lebowski) returns and is chained to the pillars of the temple, which he pulls down, crushing everyone.
Samson and Dalila initially appears to be a dated period piece, but Friday night's staging conveyed a timeless message of people hoping to be rescued by an imperfect hero only to discover that their savior’s weakness leads to his destruction and theirs.