Genre Exercises

Jesse Simon
miércoles, 18 de diciembre de 2019
Szifron, Samson et Dalila © 2019 by Matthias Baus Szifron, Samson et Dalila © 2019 by Matthias Baus
Berlin, domingo, 24 de noviembre de 2019. Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila. Damián Szifron, director. Brandon Jovanovich (Samson), Elina Garanča (Dalila), Michael Volle (High Priest), Kwangchul Youn (Abimelech), Wolfgang Schöne (Old Hebrew), Andrés Moreno García and Jaka Mihelac (Philistines), and Javier Bernardo (Messenger). Staatsopernchor. Staatskapelle Berlin. Daniel Barenboim, conductor

When the curtain went up on the Staatsoper’s new production of Samson et Dalila, it revealed a perspective set of humble sand-coloured dwellings and artificial rock formations with a temple on a hill in the far distance. Lest the set alone prove too subtle, the stage soon filled with a choir of oppressed Hebrews raising their arms to the god who had temporarily forsaken them. There was no question: we were firmly in the land of the fifties biblical epic, a whitewashed world of sackcloth and sandals, of buff prophets, raven-haired seductresses, maniacal priests and occasional shafts of divine light. It was a promising (if somewhat obvious) starting point, and one looked forward to seeing how director Damián Szifron would subvert the conventions of the genre to refashion an ancient story for the twenty-first century. He didn’t. The production that emerged was a vast, big-budget throwback, an opera done up in a style of filmmaking that had reached its zenith some six decades ago. If the evening was entertaining, it was due more to its dream cast of principals and the monumental musical direction of Daniel Barenboim than the staging’s slavish celebration of spectacle. 

It was perhaps an error in judgement to include in the programme booklet reproductions of two different posters for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 film of Samson and Delilah, the Technicolor epic starring Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature: not only did it tip the director’s hand, but it forced us to measure the staging against the achievements of the genre’s greatest practitioner. DeMille, like Saint-Saëns before him, knew that the allure of the biblical epic lay not in its appeal to simple morality, but in the fact that the easiest way of illustrating righteousness is to linger in some detail on the licentious behaviour of wrong-doers: DeMille would have spared us the cruelty of the Philistines no more than Saint-Saëns would have omitted the Bacchanale. DeMille and Saint-Saëns also understood that the principal pleasure in the story of Samson and Delilah is that of a well-engineered, well-executed seduction, and the accompanying satisfaction of knowing just how easily the mightiest hero can be brought down.

Mr Szifron undoubtedly shared DeMille’s enthusiasm for spectacle, but he spent so much of his energy trying to tick all the biblical epic boxes that he forgot to have much fun in the process. Yes there were topless dancing girls and ritual executions during the Bacchanale and some lively cast-of-dozens confrontations between coarse garmented Hebrews and horn-helmeted Philistines in the first act; the carefully crafted rock formations and hay-strewn floor could have been lifted directly from a Paramount soundstage, and the sky in the background, a series of mostly subtle video projections, ranged from pleasingly neutral to pointedly dramatic. What was missing was the hint of campiness – the clueless posturing of Samson, the arched-eyebrow knowingness of Delilah, the glowering evil of the high priest – that make the best examples of the genre so eminently watchable. Mr Szifron drew his visual style from the clichés and signifiers of one of cinema’s most reliable forms of mass entertainment but, having put them all in place, seemed unable to generate much in the way of excitement or delight. 

This lack of sparkle beneath the spectacle extended to the treatment of the story’s namesakes. One does not look to biblical epics for especially nuanced characters, but the principal figures should gain their dramatic force by emerging as strongly defined archetypes. Yet Mr Szifron seemed so overwhelmed by the potential approaches to the enigmatic Dalila that he neglected to put forth a coherent argument of his own. Was she, like Ortrud, a pagan spurred to revenge by an offense to her faith? Was she a pawn in the high priest’s game? Was she simply in love? The answer was yes on all counts, but with no real attempt to reconcile the different strands into a credible figure. In trying to make Dalila complex, the production succeeded only in making her unfathomable. Samson fared only slightly better. In his first meeting with Dalila, the seductive dance was replaced by a vision of the two settling down to scenes of domestic bliss so bizarrely out of step with the rest of the action that it could have been played for comedy had the production displayed even the remotest trace of an ironic sensibility.

If the staging was a triumph of craft over ideas, the powerful trio of principal singers offered a more genuine entertainment. Michael Volle, who can fashion a great performance from very little direction, commanded the stage whenever he appeared. There were few moments more enjoyable than the high priest calling down curses on the people of Israel in the first act, and arguably no more dramatically nuanced scene than his extended meeting with Dalila in the second. As Samson, Brandon Jovanovich was more compelling as an old testament leader than a conscience-wracked lover. His first appearance (dragging a dead bull onto the stage) was a marvel of heroic phrasing underpinned by appealing low-end warmth, his exhortations to the Hebrews to rise up against their oppressors managed to transcend the silly parting clouds and divine light served up by the staging and his aria at the beginning of the third act worked wonderfully as a penitent lamentation. It was only in his two encounters with Dalila in the first and second acts that one could detect a hint of reticence.

However the high drama and heated exchanges of the second act propelled Elina Garanča to the evening’s finest performance. Her initial appearance late in the first act featured some of the most beautifully formed notes to emerge from the stage, and her veneration of Dagon in the third was suitably rousing, but both scenes were played with an emotional coldness that were perhaps meant to suggest an ambiguity of character that went unsupported by the production. In the second act, however, Ms Garanča had greater freedom to fashion Dalila into the force of nature she was always meant to be and the results were frequently stunning. Her convincing desire for revenge in the scene with the high-priest was followed by an encyclopaedic array of emotional appeals in the subsequent scene with Samson, and the pleasure in her performance – apart from the obvious vocal ones – came from watching two powerful figures similarly duped by a master of manipulation.  

Daniel Barenboim’s grave reading of the score often achieved a more effortless monumentality than the staging. His tendency to downplay the opera’s lighter, more self-consciously charming passages in favour of rich textures, expansive phrasing and stately dramatic build yielded countless wonderful moments, not least the luminous prelude to the second act. Although he was able to invest the highly charged moments with appropriately epic sweep, it was his ability to maintain simmering tension in the quieter passages. No Dalila could have hoped for a better accompaniment to the scene of her waiting anxiously for the arrival of Samson in the second act.

Despite the high quality of the musical performances, the Staatsoper’s new Samson et Dalila seemed something of a missed opportunity. Mr Szifron is obviously a skilled director, and his facility with both crowd scenes and one-on-one confrontations ensured that the staging contained few longueurs. Yet beneath the high production values and skillful execution, there was little sense of what this story – a story which has fascinated painters, dramatists, opera composers and filmmakers for centuries – might have to say to a twenty-first century audience. In leaning too heavily on the conventions of the fifties biblical epic, the staging found itself crushed beneath them.

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