Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Disappointing Biblical Spectacle at the Met

A couple of months ago, I saved a copy of the Great Performances at the Met broadcast of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila to my Xfinity cloud space. I did not know much about it at the time, other than the fact that it was a new production for the 2018–19 season, given its first performance at the very beginning of the season on September 24. Unless I am mistaken, I have seen this opera only twice, both in performances by the San Francisco Opera (SFO), the most recent having been on September 16, 2007. The original staging was by Nicolas Joël, and the two performances I saw were both realized by Sandra Bernhard.

There were a variety of pleasures I could take away from both SFO performances I had seen. Most important was the craft behind Saint-Saëns’ approach to composition, particularly his ability to introduce a fugue without making it sound pretentious, didactic, or just plain silly. Also, I have to confess that, when you go into a space like the War Memorial Opera House, which has considerable stage space, it is fun, at least from time to time, to see that space employed to its full utility. Even if the sets and costumes seemed more at home in those “Biblical” films that date all the way back to early black-and-white cinema, there was a vastness to the vision that was perfectly consistent with the sort of music that arose when Saint-Saëns decided to pull out all of his most effective polyphonic and instrumental stops. Even those clichéd moments that seemed more at home in a Looney Tunes cartoon came across with a sense of credibility that was at least moderately convincing.

That sense of vastness was definitely central to the vision that Darko Tresnjak brought to his staging for the Met. However, while it is a sense that can register with full impact when you are sitting in a theatre, that impact does not necessarily translate convincingly to a television screen. Now I am sure there are many who will respond by saying, “Just shell out the money for a bigger screen!” However, I do not think that is the point.

What is the point is that there are very few occasions where you can just fix the camera in a single position and let it “take everything in.” Such an approach rarely does a better job than one based on the judicious selection of close-up and wide-angle shots. The fact is that there are large-scale Met productions that have done well by well-planned camera work in the past. The only Met video I have seen of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot came to me by way of such camera work, and I was bowled over by how effective it was. Gary Halvorson’s television direction never rose to that height; and, as a result, any virtues inherent in Tresnjak’s staging of Samson et Dalila were quashed.

Sadly, the music did not fare any better than the visual content. The conductor was Mark Elder, whom I had previously encountered in performance at the San Francisco Opera only once, in the late fall of 2015 for performances of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. That had not been a pleasant occasion, due primarily to his inability to keep the brass from overwhelming the rest of the orchestra. Where video production is concerned, such problems can usually be solved by capable control of a mixing board. However, one of the things that makes Saint-Saëns interesting is the way in which he can unfold his polyphony with motifs that enter off the beat. There is a perfect example of this effect before the first voices are heard in Samson et Dalila, and Elder just did not summon up the power of that effect.

I suspect there are some that would chastise me for grumbling about an opera that tends not to be taken very seriously. However, I think that such dismissal misses the point. I have seen any number of productions of “flimsy content” that rise above any of the obvious sources of triviality and emerge as a compelling, if not entirely informative, experience. The video version of the new Samson et Dalila at the Met shows too many signs of too many people asleep at the switch, almost leaving the impression that it did not matter very much how viewers would react. I, on the other hand, prefer to approach every performance as if it does matter, meaning that, in this case, I feel as if I have every right to grumble!

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