Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila, if placed in its original context, has the potential to be one the most inflammatory of operas onstage today.
Although many of history's greatest operas revolve around fatal attraction and war, sometimes in the Middle East, I don't know of any other that takes place in Gaza.
A new production at Deutsche Oper by Patrick Kinmonth occupies a less controversial political sphere, transplanting the biblical story into late 19th century France, when the composer wrote the opera. In so doing, the stage director effectively alludes to Saint-Saëns' original intentions.
As was common practice, the composer deployed the story of a Hebrew warrior who succumbs to the wiles of a seductive Philistine as an allegory for tensions of his time.
An incomplete version of the opera was performed just before the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 in which Germany defeated France and created its own nation-state.
Musically, the opera embodies a response to the Zukunftsmusik (music of the future) championed by Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. As fate would have it, the opera's biblical content offended the French so much that Saint-Saëns premiered the work in Weimar with Liszt's help. Yet a rivalry played out under the surface of this collaboration.
Germany's growing power provides the framework for Kinmonth's production in which the Israelites are depicted as the downtrodden French populace, while the Philistines dominate with military might. In an interesting touch, the stage director also makes reference to Germany's lead in the railroad industry by setting the first two acts along train tracks.
One could hardly help escape another tacit reference to a later and more brutal phase of German history during the opening scene in which the Israelites sit by the tracks mourning their powerlessness against the Philistines. In the background, Samson and Dalila frolic in an opulently decorated coach car.
Still, the railroad setting was not without moments of bizarreness. After soldiers shoot the Israelites in the first act, a cart of caskets is rolled out and then unloaded to make way for a banquet.
In his effort to create a psychologically probing setting, Kinmonth at times outdid himself. While the program notes state his intention to illuminate an emerging interest in psycho-analysis during Saint-Saëns' time, there was no cogent evidence of this dimension, unless a double set of white scrims is meant to evoke the unconscious or some sort of repressed relationship with God.
Kinmonth also conceived the romance as having begun long before the opera begins, diminishing the story's driving tension. In his version, Dalila is more of a cold bourgeois sorceress to whom Samson has already succumbed than a femme fatale.
Samson's vengeance on the Philistines in the final scene takes the form of them stripping off their courtly clothing at a banquet and walking off in a daze, while Dalila stands by his side. There was no allusion to the hero's invincible power which allows him to take down his enemies, as well as himself, in the original story.
Fortunately, the protagonists were played by magnetic soloists who distracted from an increasingly fizzling production.
Vesselina Kasarova, one of the most coveted singer-actresses of her generation and a mezzo-soprano with an unusually broad range of timbral expression at her disposal, was an indomitable Dalila, demonstrating impeccable dramatic timing with every movement. She reigned sovereignly over the famous aria "Mon Coeur s'ouvre à ta voix."
The prominent tenor José Cura was a thoroughly seductive Samson despite a somewhat constricted vibrato during the first act. His voice loosened up for a powerful performance at the onset of the third act in which the chained hero desperately prays to God. His visceral but vulnerably expressed singing brought a palpable spiritual dimension to the story.
As the Old Hebrew, Ante Jerkunica brought a smooth bass and heated conviction to the role. The French baritone Laurent Naouri was a convincingly slimy High Priest of Dagon, executing every line with beautiful diction and elegant phrasing. Jörn Schümann gave a brief but potent performance as Abimelech.
The orchestra, under the young Parisian conductor Alain Altinoglu, gave one of its best performances of the season. Altinoglu sculpted Saint-Saëns' luscious melodies with authentic articulation and easily evoked the religious tone of serene choral passages. The chorus of the Deutsche Oper also fulfilled its role with admirable pose.
The production runs through June 5. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.