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at Lyric Opera

Pierre Boulez made reference here a few years ago to what he termed the "Swiss cheese culture" approach of many American performing-arts organizations. The Art Institute, he reasoned, had masterpieces from all eras, but it also contained enough mediocre and bad works from each era to give the masterpieces a proper context--unlike, for example, Orchestra Hall, where only war-horses were heard. The masterworks are the rarity, so to hear only those in the concert hall, Boulez concluded, gives us a view of culture that, like Swiss cheese, is full of holes. By that logic, Lyric Opera is certainly doing its bit to give us a complete picture of 19th-century opera this season by presenting Camille Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila.

Saint-Saens is little remembered today, although during his lifetime he was quite popular not only in his native France, but all over the world. He was a superb musical craftsman and orchestrator, but as a composer he was capable only of imitation. Of his dozen operas, only Samson et Dalila is still performed with any regularity, although even this work is a pastiche of unrelated styles that never find an organic unity. Saint-Saens conceived the work as an oratorio but was persuaded by a librettist cousin to write it as an opera instead. Many of the work's peculiarities exist because it can't make up its mind about what it wants to be. The opening chorus is right out of Handel, as is the opening of the final act. But there is also much Gluck here, kissed with the orchestral color of Berlioz. And Saint-Saens' church background is betrayed in his having Hebrews sing in Roman plainchant, while Middle East color is reflected in the famous bacchanal of the final act. There is little consistency or logic to how and why these styles crop up, and little connection between the drama and the music. Virtually any section, dance, recitative, or aria can be (and has been) excerpted from the opera, and many of the bits stand as well, if not better, on their own.

Lyric's general director, Ardis Krainik, is fond of saying that opera is the culmination of all the art forms, combining singing, theater, symphony, dance, even painting, sculpture, and architecture. Opera does combine all of these, but more often than not in a rather ineffectual way. At its best, however, opera has the potential to rise above the other art forms when it gives each of these elements equal attention.

That is a very rare occurrence at Lyric Opera. Samson et Dalila had a superstar in its cast--tenor Placido Domingo--and by usual Lyric standards one superstar is enough to ensure a success, so less attention can be paid to other cast members and the rest of the production. Lyric tends to think in terms of either a blockbuster opera or a blockbuster cast (usually one star)--unlike, for example, San Francisco, which last year presented a La boheme with Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni--a blockbuster opera and a blockbuster cast.

But Samson et Dalila is the first Lyric production of the season to be truly extraordinary in virtually every way. Lyric tends to stage second-class productions of first-rate operas, but here is a notable reversal of that pattern--a second-rate opera given a spectacular, first-class production.

Much of the credit falls squarely on unlikely shoulders, those of set designer Douglas Schmidt. These sets, which were created in cooperation with San Francisco and the Gramma Fisher Foundation of Iowa, were seen in Lyric's 1981 production, and there has been little since to even remotely compete with their beauty, color, texture, and extravagance. (The same sets can also be seen in the San Francisco production of the opera on videocassette, which also features Domingo as Samson.) No painted backdrops here--every set is three-dimensional, with attention given to the smallest details. The Temple of Dagon, for example, whose exterior is seen in act one and interior in act three, rivals a movie set with its plush Sumerian and Assyrian design and iconography, including murals and pillars covered with colorful glazed tiles. The inside--with its bronze design and statuary, smoking stone sentries, and flaming altar--is even more magnificent. The temple's climactic collapse is so realistic that you literally gasp as you watch it.

But of course the grandeur of the production would be meaningless if there wasn't singing to match. The most amazing thing about Domingo, other than that he showed up, was the way in which he was able to take a totally wooden character and give him believability. This is a role that for years seemed to belong exclusively to Jon Vickers, who solidified his position by singing the lead in silly staged versions of the Handel oratorio of the same name. But Domingo has surpassed Vickers's performances both dramatically and vocally. Domingo is used to playing characters who are torn between two loves, but here he shows us a man tortured by a struggle between his sexuality and his faith in his God. His performance is heartfelt, which gives his betrayal by Dalila and his repentance all the more meaning and drama. It didn't hurt that his glorious vocal instrument was in top form: high notes were fresh and clear, projection and timbre were firm and strong--all in all, a magnificent performance. Lyric's anniversary roster is packed with singers whose reputations far surpass their talent, but Domingo is the rare exception whose talent and superstar status match up. One good result of the embarrassing Pavarotti controversy may be that Domingo can be lured here more often. Pavarotti has the most gorgeous tenor voice in the world, to be sure, but it is a medium-sized voice that has never projected well in Lyric's cavernous house (one of the main reasons he avoids it when he is not at his best), and he has never put a high premium on operatic acting. Domingo not only has a glorious voice, which projects magnificently, but is a consummate performer who throws himself into a role with complete dramatic conviction. I'd rather hear Pavarotti in a recital or on record any day, but live in the opera house--particularly this opera house--there is no tenor singing today who can touch Domingo.

Equally important to making this opera work is a sensual Dalila, a woman capable of enough sex appeal to make us believe that Samson would throw his religion and his people out the window for lust and passion. Greek mezzo-soprano Agnes Baltsa more than fills the bill. Saint-Saens found the darker color of the mezzo-soprano more erotic than the higher range of the soprano, which he often thought of as screeching. Baltsa--besides being unusually attractive and possessing considerable elegance, grace, and style--has a voice that is remarkably flexible and beautifully colored. She has a tendency to attack a note with more or less straight pitch and then let it waver as it goes on, which annoys many purists (most of whom probably want quarter-tone wobbling all of the time, rather than a small waver some of the time). But the approach works very well for her, and she always stays within a designated pitch. Her timbre can have a slight smoke tint to it when she wants it to, but more often she sings with a brilliance and bravura more typical of a dramatic soprano than a mezzo. Her big arias, notably the famous "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" ("My heart opens to your sweet voice"), were sung with power and passion.

Making his Lyric debut was French baritone Alain Fondary--looking like a heavyset Ming the Merciless with his shaven head, long mustache, and high collar--in the role of the High Priest of Dagon. His villainy was all the more convincing because he never overplayed it. Although he was not projecting well in the first act, he was in glorious voice by the second and was easily heard and understood as he talked Dalila into finding out Samson's secret. His temple invocations at the opera's climax were chilling. Not surprisingly, his French enunciation was the best of the cast, and his voice was clear and pure throughout the evening. He has a very deep, booming voice for a baritone, and one suspects he could tackle many bass roles with ease. His return here would be most welcome.

Most of the supporting singing was also very good, notably Henry Runey as the Old Hebrew and Arnold Voketaitis as the taunting Abimelech. But the Lyric Opera Chorus had considerable trouble with the slower choruses; entrances were scattered, and timbres and pitches unmatched and unbalanced. Bruno Bartoletti, Lyric's artistic director, conducted the work very effectively, evoking lovely French colors and trying to rescue some subtlety. His tempi were convincing, and he kept the action moving along at a crisp pace. This was a welcome surprise, for one doesn't tend to associate Bartoletti with French music. But he did a stylish job that Lyric can be proud of. The costumes of Carrie Robbins were breathtaking and set up a wonderful contrast between the bejeweled, rich Philistines and the simple tunics of their Israelite captives. The staging of Nicolas Joel ensured that there was much more action onstage than you might ordinarily see, and there was rarely a dull moment. Even while the principals are singing away in the last act, the high priest is necking with a couple of vestal virgins.

Since this is French opera, there had to be heavy doses of dance; Saint-Saens obliged with two big scenes, choreographed by Ray Barra and overseen by Maria Tallchief. The act-one dance of the priestesses of Dagon was colorful, but rather bland and asymmetrical. The act-three bacchanal was a bit more flashy in its erotic pagan revelry, led by dancer Victor Barauskas to great effect, and helped by the bronze lighting of Duane Schuler.

Samson et Dalila may be second-rate opera, but I find it far more entertaining to hear and see a mediocre opera done in a spectacular way than to endure yet another mediocre performance of a spectacular opera. I'll be quite surprised if this opera doesn't turn out to be the jewel of Lyric's 35th-anniversary season.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.

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