Sunday, July 10, 2011

Samson et Dalila in concert

Samson et Dalila, Salle Pleyel in Paris, May 17 2011

Tomas Tomasson and Elena Bocharova (and the members of the orchestra du Capitole - Toulouse)

        Tugan Sokhiev ..... conductor

    Elena Bocharova ..... Dalila
    Ben Heppner ..... Samson
    Tómas Tómasson ..... Le Grand-Prêtre de Dagon
    Nicolas Testé ..... Abimélech
    Alain Gabriel ..... Un messager philistin
    Gudjon Oskársson ..... Un vieillard hébreu
    Charles Ferré ..... Premier Philistin
    Tomislav Lavoie ..... Deuxième Philistin
    Alfonso Caiani ..... choirmaster
    Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse
    Chorus of the Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse

This was one of the concerts many people expected with excitement. Samson et Dalila is one of those grand French opera that used to be frequently staged but nowadays it very seldom find its way to the program of one of the big opera houses. I think one can understand the reasons for that if you listen to the full score. The piece misses fluidity. It sounds like a composition of musical plates that struggle to make a whole thing click right. The libretto does not help either, but it can work if a good, inventive and clever, director adds his touch to the story. This is what has been done in the excellent production at the Flanders Opera, recently released on DVD (next post).

But if you're only listening to this opera while following its weak libretto, you end up frustrated. There are some wonderful musical moments, including 2 great arias by Dalilah, 2 very good arias by Samson, 2 excellent musical intermezzos (ballet numbers) and a great aria by the High Priest of Dagon. The rest is OK, but it definitely needs a stage action to keep your attention up.

Later I read that Saint-Saëns in fact intended Samson et Dalila to be an oratorio. That would have been a wise choice as the biblical theme for the 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie was not a winning formula. He eventually decided Samson et Dalila would be an opera and the public rejected it instantly: plus it was "too Wagnerian" for that time. Franz Liszt  pushed Camille to finish his opera and it was premiered in Weimar 1877, became a success and 5 years later it conquered the Paris Opera too.

As I said it above, nowadays the full performance of Samson et Dalila is a rarity in Paris, and La Salle Pleyel was understandably packed with people for the occasion. A reason more for this big interest was the announcement that Tugan Sokhiev would come with his orchestra (and such concerts are always excellent!), and with Olga Borodina & Ben Heppner who were to sing the title roles.

I was particularly interested in Tómas Tómasson and he was obviously brilliant,  demonstrating his vocal authority right from the beginning. I also liked the short Abimélech role sung by the fine bass voice of Nicolas Testé. As for Borodina, she cancelled, and the opulent Elena Bocharova stepped in. She was a new name, new voice for me and was surprising. One of her great moments came around "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix", as it should. She would also have the moments when she was just  filling the gaps with not completely audible gravi; but as soon as you'd be tempted to criticize her, she would switch gears and bring the best of her beautifully timbred lavish voice. So yes, I liked Bocharova's Dalila -- she was great when it mattered the most.
As for Ben Heppner, he pulled through the first act very well. I even felt happy thinking he's slowly but surely regaining his old voice. Yes, he did sound apprehensive when attacking the higher notes and he was very careful in keeping his medium under control, but it all was good. That actually worked until the middle of the second act when the fatigue kicked in he started to struggle. The last prayer-aria was uncomfortable for everyone present at the concert: onstage or in the crowd.
The orchestra was good but we've seen them doing better under Tugan Sokhiev.

There was a radio broadcast of this concert so if you're curious to listen to how it all sounded, you can check it out here and here

Gudjon Oskarsson and Nicolas Testé

Tomas Tomasson and Tugan Sokhiev

Elena Bocharova and Ben Heppner

Here is a YT video with Olga Borodina and Placido Domingo [excerpt from DVD of a shallow production, but if you care about good singing only, then this might be the one you wish to add to your collection]

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