Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Disaster of Biblical Proportions

Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila
Metropolitan Opera 
Opening Night Gala
September 24, 2018

Biblical romance in the air: A match made in heaven.
Photo credit: Met Opera
The Met’s season opener Samson et Dalila was appealing on paper: the excitement of discovering a rarely performed work, a well-known biblical story, a scheming seductress as female lead, some hard-core Orientalism and a solid cast.Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the most disappointing productions and performances I’ve seen at a Met opening gala (or ever, for that matter).
The Philistines scheme.
Photo credit: Met Opera
The biblical plot is straight-forward yet ripe with dramatic possibilities: the Israelites are oppressed by the Philistines, Samson – the Israelite hero chosen by god – leads his people in successful revolt, Dalila – his Philistine ex-lover – is determined to win him back and trick him into revealing to her the secret source of his strength. He resists but ultimately caves (hint: it’s his luscious locks of long flowing hair), she gives him a haircut and her people blind and imprison him. Finally, when the Philistines are orgiastically worshipping their god Dagon, Samson asks his own god Jehovah to grant him superhuman strength one last time. God grants Samson’s wish and our fallen hero brings down the Philistines’ temple, killing a bunch of them (and himself, too). Curtain. 
The new production was the brainchild of director Darko Trensjak, set designer Alexander Dodge and costume designer Linda Cho, all making their Met debut. In an interview published in the show’s Playbill, Trensjak indicates that “[the] production is based on scant information of the ancient world re-interpreted through the lens of contemporary technology, art and design.” The result is a bizarre combination of modern looking sets and kitschy traditional costumes that was not only an eyesore but also did not necessarily make much sense. 
Scenes as in Act I, pictured here, were punctuated by pink.
Photo credit: Met Opera
With the exception of the third act, the sets are pretty bare bones falling flat at best (white plastic looking town in Act I) and resembling an airport lounge at worst (Dalila’s crib in Act II). All of the sets were either white plastic or laser cut metal, and lighting was a jarring mix of color-changing halogen lights and flame torches. It seems that most of design effort went into Act III, with its gigantic statue of the god Dagon surrounded by a three-level auditorium hosting rows of Philistines dressed in their finest orgiastic red robes. 
Set from Act III: the temple of Dagon.
 Photo credit: Met Opera
Admittedly the statue was impressive and elicited enthusiastic applause from the public (incidentally, I loathe when people cheer at a set or, worse, at four legged beasts on stage). However, the Philistine statue was not enough to save a production that was definitely tanked by some of the cheapest looking, not to mention ugliest, costumes I’ve seen on the Met stage. It is as if they spent all the budget on those Act III sets and then borrowed acrylic costumes from a regional theater’s third-rate production. The contrast with the minimalist sets was simply grotesque. When it came to actual direction, Trensjak did not put much effort into it, singers were mostly doing the “park and bark” thing, especially in Act I, which is frankly a bit old in this day and age. 
Garanca attempted to humanize her femme fatale.
Photo credit: Met Opera
Still, if performers are extraordinary, one might be inclined to forget or forgive a poor production. This was sadly not the case here. Maybe all of the stars had opening night jitters, but that is not acceptable with singers of this caliber. Mezzo Elina Garanca, usually an exciting and spectacular performer, sounded and looked ill at ease in the role, not really conveying the expected passionate complexity of Dalila. She has an enticing chesty sound, but her voice doesn’t seem to be low enough for this role, though her instrument and stage presence did get a chance to shine during the lengthy scene of seduction in Act II.
Samson feels Dalila's divine attraction.
Photo credit: Met Opera
Tenor Roberto Alagna as Samson also fell flat and struggled through most of the opera. When he makes his entrance immediately after the moving first chorus, Samson is meant to inspire his people with an exhilarating call to action, his voice approximating that of God. Alagna’s Samson was lacking in both energy and power and the tempos coming out of the pit seemed to lag as a result. So much for a fiery opening. Over the course of the opera, his voice seemed to progressively grow a little hoarse. In his aria of defeat with his shoulder against the millstone of captivity in the beginning of Act III, his flagging voice added a poignant expressivity. However, come the finale he flagrantly missed the final high note that was supposedly Samson’s last punctuating cry as he brings down the Philistine temple. Granted, the production did not help heighten the moment either, all we had as hint that the temple was falling down was some smoke and a bunch of bright lights beaming out full force from the back of the stage, talk about an anticlimactic ending. 
Laurent Naouri as the High Priest struggles to turn the tragedy around.
Photo credit: Met Opera
Other performers were not as bad, but with the opera really grounded in the dramatic tension between Samson and Dalila, which did not really come through, the rest did not end up mattering much. 

Company XIV worshipping the god Dagon.
Photo credit: Met Opera
The only truly exciting performers on stage were the dancers of the troupe Company XIV led by choreographer Austin McCormick who performed the bacchanal scene in Act III. I’ve known this dance group from their collaborations with the underground parties produced by Dances of Vice and was excited to see their sexy, irreverent and energetic style on the Met stage. They did not disappoint: with their mostly naked bodies painted with the same scales of the giant Dagon statue, these dancers stole the show, embodying the lascivious and feverish spirit of the score through sensual, muscular choreographies. Incidentally, this was the only time when conductor Sir Mark Elder let the Met orchestra truly roar, in an evening where it otherwise seemed to drag in impossibly slow tempos. 

Samson is reluctant to accept defeat.
Photo credit: Met Opera
On a frivolous note, this year’s gala confirmed the recent trend whereby the public’s most spectacular outfits, headpieces and accessories adorned not the women in attendance, but a select few of the gentlemen. One couple in particular, a young man sporting a spiraling feathered headpiece and sparkling shoes, and his date in a pale blue tux with matching feathered fan, were truly fabulous. Now, ladies, where did the all bejeweled tiaras and glamourous gowns go?!? 

Let’s just hope that the rest of the season goes uphill from here, on both sides of the stage! 

– Lei & Lui

Samson prays that the season will improve, and we with him.
Photo credit: Met Opera

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