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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Samson et Dalila

The Met opens its 2018 season with Saint-Saëns' Old Testament thumper.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mr. DeMille, they're ready for their closeup: Roberto Alagna (left) and
Elina Garança wig out in the Met's new Samson et Dalila.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2018 The Metropolitan Opera.
The new season opens with Roberto Alagna and Elina Garança in the title roles of Samson et Dalila, the story of an implacable hero, an unstoppable anti-heroine and the most famous gravity-check in the Old Testament. Also, lots of really, really big hair!

What is Samson et Dalila?
This is a Romantic (with a capital R!) opera re-telling the story from the Book of Judges of the Old Testament in which the Hebrew hero Samson falls in love with and is then betrayed by the Philistine temptress Dalila (English spelling: "Delilah.") Although the subject is Biblical, this is not a dusty oratorio but a full-fledged, fully-staged and red-blooded opera that is guaranteed to bring down the house. Literally.

What's the story?
The mighty, hirsute Samson leads the Israelites in rebellion against the oppresive, pagan Philistines. Dalila, a Philistine woman attracts Samson's interest. She hatches a plan, bringing him to her dwelling and then hacking off his hair, purportedly the source of his Incredible Hulk-like strength. Shorn, blinded, chained and brought to the Temple of Dagon, Samson prays one last time to his God, and finds the strength to smash the temple pillars, causing the roof to collapse and killing all inside.

Tell me something else interesting?
Saint-Saëns' original plan to write Samson as an oratorio had one serious consequence for the opera's spectacular finale. The final, defiant act of faith by Samson, where he smashes the columns and collapses the Temple of Dagon takes place to just twenty seconds of music. Talk about "boom crash opera!"

What's the music like?
One of the most eclectic and intelligent composers of his day, Saint-Saëns drew on an unlikely mix of Hebrew liturgical themes and lush Wagnerian excess to paint the desert with glorious and bloody colors. The work opens in firm oratorio mode, with a solemn chorus of Hebrews establishing the Biblical setting. The gloom lifts with "Printemps qui commence," Dalila's spring song. Her big aria is “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix”  from Act II. A shorn and blinded Samson gets to answer in Act III with "Vois ma misère, hélas!" one of the great French tenor arias. Finally, there's the opera's best-known tune, the smashing Bacchanale that whips the Philistines into a whirling, dancing frenzy...right before everybody dies.

Who's in it?
The fall run of this new production stars the frequent tandem of tenor Roberto Alagna and mezzo Elina  Garanča as the ill-fated lovers. These same two singers who ushered in the company's production of Carmen in 2009. He's a French tenor who hopefully finds enough lung-power to sing this demanding role. She's a sultry mezzo bringing out her feminine side. The spring performances will pair leather-lunged tenor Anders Antonenko with the even sultrier Anita Rachvelishveli. Sir Mark Elder conducts.

How's the production?
 This is the Met's first staging of the opera in twenty years, replacing a garish but much-loved African setting by designer Richard Jones. Here, Bronze Age Gaza will be recreated by director Darko Tresnijak (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) and designer Alexander Dodge. Judging from the photographs released by the Met press department, this is a traditional production designed to satisfy all, with curved, rotating latticework sets that look curiously like those in the company's production of Massenet's Thaïs. 

When does Samson et Dalila open?
This new production opens Sept. 24, and the performance will be broadcast live in Times Square in a free annual event (if you can't make it to the opera house.) The opening night performance begins at 6pm. All other evening performances are at 7:30pm. The spring run starts March 11.

Where do I get tickets?
Tickets are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save some money on service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza.

Box office hours are: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Which recordings do you recommend?
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