Samson, But Mostly Dalila
May 22, 2011
Like it or not, it is this time of year already. Hopes and memories start fading in the distance, the wandering lyrical soul just about to plunge into the Summer’s luminous festive promises…Well, more or less, anyway. The unusually long Berlin opera season is about to come to a halt in just a couple of weeks: the Staatsoper has yet one new staging of Bernstein’s irreverencious Candide up its sleeves before the first edition of the new INFEKTION! festival in July; its Charlottenburg neighbour, the Deutsche Oper, will give the Berlin premiere of Verdi’s Macbeth on June 12. The Robert Carsen production, imported from Köln, hardly qualifies as “new”, making the actual run of Saint-Saëns’ rarely staged Samson et Dalila the de facto ultimate offering of Intendantin / Regisseurin Kirsten Harms’ highly controversial reign. She is to step down in July after a bumpy seven-year tenure which saw the successive departures of two music directors, Christian Thielemann and Renato Palumbo, and the appointment of a third, incumbent Donald Runnicles.
Harms has come under heavy criticism for her choice of repertoire and directors alike, her inability to maintain strong musical leadership before Runnicle’s arrival only exemplified by her ill-advised pick of Palumbo as a short-lived successor to Thielemann, one of the most important conductors of his generation. Not surprisingly, this season has seen few highlights. After Roland Schwab’s erratic take on Don Giovanni, David Poutney’s Troyens and Graham Vick’s Tristan und Isolde, both dramaturgically valuable but incomplete, Patrick Kinmonth‘s grim and precise vision of Saint-Saëns’ religious fable is more than a fair success. The British director unobtrusively updates the action of this tale of national self-definition to the composer’s time, namely, the politically charged 1870s and the Franco-Prussian war. While there remains little of the slightly over-blown pageantry one readily associates with the opera, his approach is strangely compelling – not flawless, certainly, yet enticing as it makes no concession to political correctness in its depiction of social and racial tensions in Second Empire Paris, setting the stage for Europe’s meltdown-to-come. If there is one occurence where Kinmonth might be taken to fault, though, it is for perhaps choosing to ignore the context in which his concept unfolds: it is a tad precarious – not to say redundent, in this town – to have tenths of Jews board departing trains at the final tableau. The audience’s irritation, on May 19, though understandable, tended to overshadow Malgorzata Walewska‘s beautifully sung Dalila and Alain Altinoglu‘s superb conducting.
Almost 46, the Polish contralto is no household name on the top-league opera circuit, yet she boasts a sizeable and richly hued voice coupled with strong, instinctive acting skills, compensating with refined musicality what her registers lack in homogeneity. A much satisfying if somewhat belated discovery for this listener, Walewska is a real contender for Olga Borodina and certainly a serious one for Anita Rachvelishvili or even Elīna Garanča, when and if the Latvian mezzo adds the role to her already vast repertoire. The rest of the cast acquitted themselves aptly, if without distinction. José Cura‘s rough-edged Samson, while touching in his third act soliloquy (see clip above), lacks nobility and seductiveness in variable doses; Laurent Naouri sings the Great Priest with style and treasurable mastery of French prosody.
Altinoglu, it seems, enters the category of underrated conducting wonders. The young French maestro coaxes the most exquisite sounds from the Deutsche Oper orchestra, avoiding the pitfall of prettiness throughout and making this score sound both structurally solid and just plain magnificent in its celebration of rosy decadence. Who ever said 19th-century French music was too mild? A terrific achievement.