Baltimore Opera's impressive 'Sampson' deals with issues that remain current

March 20, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The Baltimore Opera Company's new production of Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila," which opened Saturday at the Lyric, demonstrates what a great work this is and what a subtle mind its composer had. Using Voltaire's retelling of the story of the Hebrew strongman and the temptress who destroys him as a source, Saint-Saens fashioned a work that is beautiful and nobly proportioned; he also created one that deals seriously with issues of gender and ethnicity, underlying late-19th-century Europe's preoccupation with what it called "the Orient" (and what Americans now call the Middle East), that remain current.

Can the "higher" principles of spirituality, reason and restraint (traditionally viewed in the West as "male" and "European") be reconciled with the "lower" ones of eroticism, indulgence and pleasure (traditionally identified as "female" and "Oriental")? In the conflict between Samson and the Hebrews and Dalila and the Philistines, Saint-Saens addresses this question.

And so does this BOC production, which was directed, designed, costumed and lit by the Argentine team of Roberto Oswald and Anibal Lapiz. There were only a few missteps. One came early in the first act, when Samson borrows what appears to be a giant nutcracker -- one can only suppose that it was meant to represent the jawbone of an ass -- in order to dispatch a few Philistines. For the most part, however, this production shows the intelligence and care one expects from Oswald and Lapiz.

This production not only looks beautiful, but is beautiful in a particular way. Oswald's sets and lighting and Lapiz' costumes deliberately recall the Orient as it was imagined in paintings by Delacroix, Ingres, Regnault, Gerome and others. (A few members of the audience at intermissions objected to the use of a scrim in front of the stage -- an apparent trademark of Oswald-Lapiz here -- but it is hard to imagine how else their painterly effects might have been achieved.) It is an Orient imagined as sensually tempting and threateningly cruel, and it contrasts with Oswald and Lapiz's pared-down presentation of Samson and his Hebrew brothers the way the composer himself contrasts the spare Gregorian chant-like music of the Hebrews as Act I opens with the almost joyous send-up of Baroque sacred music in Act III when Philistines celebrate their sacred rites.

This "Samson" was musically impressive. Alexander Sander, who conducted a superb "Salome" several seasons back for the BOC, achieved results from the Baltimore Opera Orchestra that made one admire Saint-Saens' ingenious instrumental coloring,

The evening's finest singing came from the Dalila of Markella Hatziano -- a Greek mezzo-soprano of whom one expects to hear much more. Hatziano created a long, elegant line with a velvety tone. At her first appearance, the voice may have seemed somewhat small, though not too small to be heard. But in Act II, she unveiled an instrument of considerable size -- one that reached big climaxes without a hint of strain, that was filled with feeling and that was compellingly seductive in the famous love duet.

Wolfgang Fassler's Samson was not as smoothly delivered, but he had the necessary heroic timbre and enough moral force to convince us he was a character torn by conflicting desires. John Shirley-Quirk was appropriately nasty as the short-lived Philistine Governor, Abimilech. Richard J. Clark, as the fanatical High Priest of Dagon, was brutish and powerful -- if not, perhaps, sufficiently sensual. The Baltimore Opera chorus, which sang with refinement, never sounded better. And Peter Pucci's sensational choreography for Act III's Bacchanale was voluptuous, wild and cruel -- everything once associated with "the Orient."

The performance will be repeated March 22 at 7:30 p.m., March 24 at 8:15 p.m., March 25 at 8:15 p.m. (with Victoria Livengood as Dalila) and March 26 at 3 p.m.

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