When Samson knocks over six massive columns and brings down the entire temple in the smashing finale of Camille Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila," you wouldn't want to be one of the 60 unfortunate Philistines gathered on stage at the Lyric Opera House. And even if you're not a Philistine, you might feel a tad uneasy if your seat is in the first few rows.
Truth be told, the columns erected for the Baltimore Opera Company production opening March 18 are mostly made of plastic foam. But these columns are 37 feet high! Any mistakes in the set design or the deployment of the cast, and there might be a mishap of biblical proportions. Ensuring that the opera's tumultuous final 10 seconds don't really bring down the house is Roberto Oswald, who designed the set and handles the stage direction for this production.
In all, he's got to worry about the welfare of 93 performers. There are stars, such as mezzo-sopranos Markella Hatziano and Victoria Livengood (on March 25 only) as Dalila, and tenor Wolfgang Fassler as Samson. There are warring Hebrew and Philistine factions among the many singers. The orchestra and chorus must be kept in line. And Mr. Oswald must take into account the lowly supernumeraries, too, since even the most pagan among them are still human beings. On top of this cavalcade of humanity, there are the ballet dancers who come out for the third-act bacchanal, choreographed by Baltimore native Peter Pucci.
Confronted with the sheer spectacle of this 1877 French opera, which is receiving its first Baltimore Opera Company production, Mr. Oswald says his conceptual approach is to respect "the style from the grand opera [tradition] that fits perfectly for this biblical story. At the same time, my concept is done with a new look that is 'clean.' I think everything that happens on stage has to happen for some reason. In the old style, things happened on stage because they looked good, but now we need deeper psychology, theology and philosophy. I think we have to understand the deepest meaning of the biblical story."
Set around 1150 B.C. in Gaza, the story involves the Hebrew Samson leading his people in rebellion against the Philistines. His main foe, the high priest of Dagon, recruits the Philistine princess Dalila to find out the secret of Samson's great strength. She seduces him and learns that he owes his success to his long locks. Having succumbed to earthly passion, Samson then pays the price by being shorn, blinded and enslaved. The short-haired Samson's prayers to God are finally answered, and he regains his strength. He destroys the temple as the Philistines get their comeuppance.
"This story makes us wonder how Samson can be so weak on the inside if he is so strong on the outside. The weakness inside the strong person is a theme that also appears in Greek mythology and elsewhere, too, from Achilles to football players and screen actors today. We often wonder how someone so famous and important can do something so weak," like succumbing to Dalila's seductive wiles. "The most important thing here is that when Samson is at his weakest, down on the lowest level, blind and working like an animal, he finally gets the inspiration to gain the inside strength which will give him the outside strength" to pull off his final feat.
By extension, Mr. Oswald says, the story of Samson is emblematic of the Hebrew people. Despite constant struggle and enslavement, they persevered and maintained hope. Their plight is reflected in his set design, dominated by a pagan temple built atop the ruins of a Jewish temple.
"Samson reduces this Philistine temple down to ruins again. That is his triumph, but he pays for it with his life," Mr. Oswald says.
As for designing those columns and the rest of the edifice, he notes that there are few archaeological traces of these civilizations. His set design has some columns, mosaics and human-headed statues of bulls derived from the ancient Near East, but for the most part, he relies on his own imagination to differentiate the Hebrews and the Philistines.
"All the wars back and forth took everything away. You can have just a few references [in the set design]. This takes the design away from real references, and I can redo it in my imagination. I think of the Hebrews as being very clean in the colors and forms I use for them, while I think of the Philistines as being mannerist -- a bit overdone -- in how they look."