Domingo left holding the baton, and the bag Review: Washington Opera's 'Samson et Dalila' lifted by Jose Cura and Denyce Graves in title roles. But new conductor let them down.

November 12, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Perhaps I should be forbidden from attending performances of Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila." At every production I go to, disaster strikes ahead of schedule. Moments before the blinded and buzz-cut Hebrew strongman is about to wreak Yahweh's vengeance upon the erring Philistines, the temple walls and the statue of their god, Dagon, inevitably begin to collapse.

It was scarcely a surprise, therefore, when this scenario repeated itself Saturday night in the Opera House of the Kennedy Center at the first performance of the Washington Opera's new staging of the opera. It is a pleasure to report, however, that in many respects this much-anticipated production was a success.

The chief reason for the anticipation was the presence of the much-talked-about Argentine tenor Jose Cura in the title role. It is a coup for the Washington Opera to have engaged Cura before he arrives at the Met next season. He is 35 and is already being touted as the man who will inherit the mantle of Placido Domingo in the heroically scaled roles of the lyric tenor repertory.

Cura's Samson in London's Covent Garden was much applauded a few seasons back, and his first performances of Verdi's Otello in Turin recently were enthusiastically received. And, as if to place his seal of approval upon predictions that the next Domingo is in our midst, the great tenor himself, who is the Washington company's artistic director and who still counts Samson among his signature roles, is making his Washington Opera debut as a conductor in this production.

So how good is Cura -- or, more to the point, how does he compare with the Domingo of 20 years ago?

He certainly resembles the Spaniard superficially -- except that he is better-looking and is physically more imposing than the young Domingo was.

And his tenor instrument is superb. Cura's voice may not convey the sweetness that Domingo's did (and still does), but it is beautiful enough and perhaps even more powerful. Even in the highest reaches of the role, Cura's notes never betrayed a hint of strain.

I also prefer Cura's interpretation of Samson (he has also recorded the opera on just-released Erato 3984-24756) to that of Domingo at the same age. Cura is at least as forceful and expressive, but he gets inside the role in a way that I don't think the younger Domingo did, achieving a bottomless depth of despair in "Vois ma misere" at the beginning of Act III.

Cura's performance was well-matched by the Dalila of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Because she has so stunning a figure, so beautiful a face and a voice so powerful, there was no need to attempt much in the way of vocal subtlety. But Graves is an intelligent and resourceful actress, and she portrayed Dalila with impressive breadth of feeling and tone.

This well-cast production also featured Justino Diaz, striking sparks in his interchanges with Dalila, as a fiercely fanatical High Priest, and Rosendo Flores as Abimelech and Jonathan Deutsch as the Old Hebrew.

But this production, finely sung as it is, does not rescue "Samson et Dalila" from the charges customarily directed against it -- that of being a staged oratorio on one hand and of vulgarity on the other.

Neither charge is true. "Samson" is a masterpiece. But it requires a mastery of French elegance, color and understatement that Domingo's conducting does not possess.

Domingo rarely lent the score a natural sense of flow, and he underlined its most obvious elements. He made the exquisite and exhilarating Act III bacchanal sound as cheap as the soundtrack to a 1950s Hollywood "B" movie -- an impression unfortunately reinforced by Youri Vamos' garish, embarrassingly obvious choreography.

'Samson et Dalila'

Where: Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington

When: Through Nov. 28

Tickets: $37-$213; sold out except for Nov. 27 performance with Ian Denolfo and Catherine Keen in the title roles

Call: 800-444-1324

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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