The Dallas Opera, whose conducting staff is led by its French-born Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, chose Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Dalila” from the heart of the Romantic French operatic repertory, as the opera to open its 61st season.
[Below: Dalila (Olga Borodina, right) is determined to seduce Samson (Clifton Forbis, left) as part of an effort to destroy his power; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
An extraordinary cast was assembled, featuring the sultry-voiced Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina and the heroic Texas tenor Clifton Forbis in the title roles. I was present at the third performance, conducted by Maestro Villaume’s colleague, Maestro Pierre Vallet.
Olga Borodina’s Dalila
Perhaps no opera so effectively displays the seductive power of the mezzo-soprano voice as “Samson et Dalila”, particularly in Dalila’s showpiece aria Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix. Olga Borodina’s sang it with a rich sound that exuded warmth as her voice descended into its lower register.
[Below: Olga Borodina as Dalila; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
This is the third time that I have seen Borodina in this role, the first in San Francisco in 2001 with the late Russian tenor Sergei Larin as Samson, the second, also, a decade ago, with Clifton Forbis [Exotic Immersion: “Samson” in S. F. – September 11, 2007].
Clifton Forbis’ Samson
Clifton Forbis is associated with three famous tenor roles – the title role of Verdi’s Otello, Tristan in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and Samson – whose vocal weight places such heavy demands on an artists’ vocal resources that most tenors avoid them.
I have reported on Clifton Forbis’ performances in two of these challenging roles on five previous occasions, including three previous times as Samson [see San Diego Opera Offers Saint-Saens’ Sensuous “Samson and Delilah” – February 16, 2013] and twice as Tristan [Forbis, Voigt Brilliant as Lyric’s Tristan and Isolde – Chicago, February 24, 2009].
[Below: Clifton Forbis as Samson, here among the Israelites; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Forbis continues to be a formidable Samson, singing full-voiced with the power the role demands, yet with an attractive vocal instrument that shows no sign of wear.
Forbis was particularly effective in the emotional scene in which the Samson has been blinded and forced continuously to push a heavy grindstone in a circular path. Like the similarly defeated Tristan, he begins an opera’s third act portraying the deep despair of a broken hero.
[Below: Samson (Clifton Forbis), his military power destroyed, is forced to turn a heavy grindstone; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Richard Paul Fink’s High Priest of Dagon
As the High Priest of the Philistines, baritone Richard Paul Fink was in superb voice, performing the role of Dalila’s mentor and co-conspirator brilliantly.
[Below: RIchard Paul Fink as the High Priest of Dagon; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Effective in so many of the operatic roles that represent the chief adversary of a principal character [for his Alberich, see A Richly Rewarding, Re-imagined “Rheingold” – Seattle Opera, August 4, 2013], Fink made a strong impression as a sinister counselor to Dalila and as the leader of the bacchanalian revels of the final scene.
Ryan Kuster’s Old Hebrew, Michael Chioldi’s Abimelech and Other Cast Members
Bass-baritone Ryan Kuster was cast as the Old Hebrew, one of the most compelling of French opera’s comprimario basso roles. Kuster sang with sensitivity, providing evidence that he at the beginning of an important operatic career.
[Below: Ryan D. Kuster as the Old Hebrew; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
As an example of luxury casting, the Dallas Opera engaged the impressive America baritone Michael Chioldi for the relatively brief role of Abimelech.
Chioldi, who is usually entrusted with lead roles [see Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010] gave a solid performance as the embattled Philistine.
[Below: Michael Chioldi as Abimelech; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Tenor Jay Gardner was the Messenger and tenor Zach Hess and bass-baritone Travis Wiley McGuire were the First and Second Philistines, who, in combination, express the terror that Samson’s exploits create in his enemies.
Maestro Pierre Vallet and The Dallas Opera Orchestra and Chorus
The performance I attended was the only one of the seven scheduled to be conducted by Maestro Villaume’s Assistant Conductor, Maestro Pierre Vallet. (Villaume, who, in addition to conducting “Samson” in Dallas, is rehearsing for a revival of Massenet’s “Thaïs” at the New York Metropolitan Opera.)
[Below: Maestro Pierre Vallet; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Maestro Vallet, presiding over The Dallas Opera’s excellent orchestra and chorus, showed sensitivity to the opera’s lyricism and affection for Saint-Saëns’ exotic orchestration.
The Dallas Opera’s chorus master is Alexander Rom.
The Pittsburgh Opera sets (themselves revisions of an earlier production) had been created for Stephanie Blythe’s debut as Dalila [see Blythe Leads Impressive Role Debuts in “New” Pittsburgh “Samson et Dalila” – October 18, 2008.] They established the mood for the exotic Old Testament world in which Philistines and Israelites, each with their own avenging God, battled for survival.
[ Below: Dalila (Olga Borodina, top left) is enjoying the bacchanal, unaware that the blind Samson (Clifton Forbis, top right) is about the destroy the temple and all inside of it in the next moment; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph.]
The bacchanal gives license for stage directors to provide some edgier stage behaviors, but the stage director Bruno Berger-Gorski and Choreographer Nicole Ray in this production would not have raised the ire of any critics of stage excesses.
Overall, Berger-Gorski’s direction was attentive to small details. In the first act, Kuster’s Old Hebrew and Forbis’ Samson both engage in ritual movements with their prayer shawls During the bacchanal, one sees the blind Samson gesturing with the same movements as if he were wearing a prayer shawl.
I enthusiastically recommend the opera and cast, both for the veteran operagoer and the person new to opera.