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Crushing the temple: “Samson & Delilah” in Seattle

Seattle Opera produced the Saint-Saëns opera with minimal sets and big voices.

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Yonghoon Lee as Samson and J'Nai Bridges as Delilah in Seattle Opera's "Samson and Delilah." Photo by Sunny Martini.
Yonghoon Lee as Samson and J’Nai Bridges as Delilah in Seattle Opera’s “Samson and Delilah.” Photo by Sunny Martini.

Ending with a 5-minute curtain call, Camille Saint-Saëns’ single major opera, Samson & Delilah, proved a hit with the Seattle Opera audience on Jan. 20 at McCaw Hall. SO staged it Jan. 22 for a second performance.

The opera was a long time coming to the SO stage after a 57-year hiatus. Not that the piece wasn’t on everyone’s radar: “It was probably the one opera we’ve planned and canceled, planned and canceled, the most in the almost 30 years I’ve worked for Seattle Opera,” dramaturg Jonathan Dean wrote in an email.

The Old Testament story drips with operatic themes: power, sex, seduction, suffering, destruction. Samson enters the Philistine community and temple and incites a revolt and carries out destruction. The Philistines, though cowed, are dead set on defeating him, and use Delilah as a way to find the source of his strength. She never loses sight of her goal (“he has no power against me”) to seduce and betray him. In the Biblical story, Samson pulls the temple down after her betrayal and after he is chained, chided and blinded. But in this version, the music tells the story of Samson’s strength, so no falling building concludes this piece. Certainly, crushing the temple in each performance would have cost a ton of money.

Though the cast is small, Samson traditionally is expensive to produce with a full orchestra, which includes two harps. French maestro Ludovic Morlot, who conducted Die Walküre at SO, led the orchestra with precision, and the final act’s “Bacchanale,” where the two harps soar, is an exotically inspired treat to listen to. Ballet dancers are often required in 19th-century French opera though none appeared in this production, and a full chorus (26 men and 26 women in this piece) plays a big part. Let us not forget several juicy roles that must be matched up with the right voices.

Seattle Opera's "Samson and Delilah." Photo by Sunny Martini.
Seattle Opera’s “Samson and Delilah.” Photo by Sunny Martini.

SO staged this opera, with a libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire that debuted in 1877 in Germany, as a concert rather than a grand opera, with the orchestra and chorus onstage and the singers moving back and forth in front of them. The scenery was unchanging and simple—an outline of a temple—though lighting by Connie Yun (we saw her work this summer in Portland’s two OrpheusPDX operas) clued us in to changes and dramatic moments. 

Costumes were a cost-saving measure. The cast, all men except J’Nai Bridges as Delilah, wore their own coats and ties, though popular SO Wagner-opera regular silver-haired fox Greer Grimsley donned tails as the power-hungry High Priest of Dagon set on destroying Samson. Samson (Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee) dressed nattily in an open-throated tux and patent leather shoes in the first act, and dressed down in casual clothes for the second and third acts when he was betrayed, blinded and tied to a millstone.

Greer Grimsley as the High Priest of Dagon in Seattle Opera's "Samson and Delilah." Photo by Sunny Martini.
Greer Grimsley as the High Priest of Dagon in Seattle Opera’s “Samson and Delilah.” Photo by Sunny Martini.

Delilah’s (Bridges’) clothes were far from ready-to-wear. Her first-act glittering golden gown and second-act sultry black mermaid dress were out of Bridges’ personal closet. The man sitting next to me dozed through most of the opera except when he sensed she was onstage, and then he popped up in his seat, thoroughly alert.

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Bridges was worth sitting up for. She grew up in Lakewood, Wash., a Tacoma suburb, playing basketball and singing in church, and proved an ideal pick for the big mezzo role of Delilah, or “Dalia” as the French pronounce it, and as it was spelled in the subtitles. I’m guessing that much of the prolonged applause was aimed at the hometown star who stunned in the role of Samson’s unrelenting seducer with her assured velvety voice, knock-out beauty and convincing body language. As Delilah, she spent much of the opera trying to pry the secret of Samson’s strength from him, sometimes self-pitying, sometimes in vicious over-control. He is the “outsider,” the rebellion-stirring strong-man Hebrew hero in this story, but he’s vulnerable to her charms, and sings that he is “laid low by her charms.” The story unfolds in three acts, altogether about two and one-half hours with one intermission.

J'Nai Bridges as Delilah in Seattle Opera's "Samson and Delilah." Photo by Sunny Martini.
J’Nai Bridges as Delilah in Seattle Opera’s “Samson and Delilah.” Photo by Sunny Martini.

Lee has a huge, bright tenor that vigorously projected throughout the house. If I couldn’t understand his French, I didn’t really care. He could be singing any language, and I’d love his voice. He did use written music onstage, coming off of a hectic schedule so that the score was there when he needed it, a bit odd for any kind of opera performance  But it didn’t hinder his movement, and in the second act, when he and Delilah are playing cat and mouse with their fatal attraction, singing gorgeous arias and soaring duets, he is utterly convincing. These “love scenes,” even if Delilah doesn’t give a damn about him, were cathartic and tear-jerking. The best known of Delilah’s arias, (and often a mezzo choice for auditions and concerts) “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” (“My heart opens to your voice”), was beautiful, and in this opera, worth waiting for.

This Samson & Delilah illustrated that 19th-century French opera doesn’t have to be elaborate with all the accouterments of grand opera when it’s staged in the 21st century. A simpler production can be moving, especially if such charismatic stars as Bridges and Lee are carrying it —-in whichever language.

Yonghoon Lee as Samson in Seattle Opera’s “Samson and Delilah.” Photo by Sunny Martini.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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