Sunday, September 16, 2007

Doing Justice to the Composer

Having written about how much there was to hear in the music that Camille Saint-Saëns composed for Samson and Delilah, I am now happy to report that the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of Patrick Summers, did not disappoint. Summers knew exactly how to manage all those intricacies of counterpoint and orchestra texture that tend to get lost in the spectacular excesses of sex and violence up on stage. Even that misnamed "Bacchanale" was far more passionate in the pit (where it seemed as if every member of the orchestra was sweating bullets), than it was in the somewhat lame choreography, which never seemed to climax in the blood sacrifice that the set had been designed to portray. However, Summers deserves points for subtlety, too. This was most evident in his work with the opening chorus. Whether or not Saint-Saëns took his cue for the long build-up of Handel's "Zadok the Priest," Samson and Delilah is introduced by a sequence of waves of slow-and-steady crescendo, each one climaxing with a bit more energy than its predecessor.

Actually, since this opera was apparently originally conceived as an oratorio, we should probably assume that Saint-Saëns was not only aware of Mendelssohn's Elijah but also took it as a point of reference. Needless to say, Elijah does not give in the sorts of spectacle that were expected in opera; so perhaps one way of comparing the two would be to say that Samson and Delilah offers up in Technicolor what Mendelssohn had previously mastered in black-and-white. This would give Saint-Saëns the necessary acknowledgement for his orchestral technique. This should not be taken as a grudging acknowledgement. One can learn a lot about not only composition but also that skill in good listening that Stravinsky so valued (as long as one recognizes that the orchestral score is critical to the success of any opera).

As to the action on stage, if the choreography was weak, then the chemistry among the major characters was there in full force. This was most evident in the second act, in which Delilah has to play off first against the High Priest of Dagon and then against Samson. This demands a fair amount of character development on her part, without, in the second case, turning her into a remake of Carmen manipulating Don Jose. Olga Borodina handled both relationships solidly, allowing us to enjoy the game of sexual politics being played with utter mastery. Meanwhile, both Juha Uusitalo, as the Priest, and Clifton Forbis, as Samson, took command of their own power games, each having a triumph in his own way. All that was really lost in the dramatic interpretation was the basic Judaic concept of teshuvah, the idea that God attaches more value the turning away from one's own transgressions than to constant obedience. However, one cannot fault Forbis for missing out on a key element of Judaism that librettist Ferdinand Lemair had chosen to ignore; and, if we really want to get technical about it, the concept has its origins in Midrash and Talmud, rather than the Old Testament! This, however, is a matter of a pilpul and, by all rights, should not detract from the enjoyment of spectacle!

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