Samson et Dalila is Camille Saint-Saens's most well-loved expression of his wild terror of women. While his other operatic celebrations of misogyny have, for whatever reason, failed the test of time, Samson et Dalila still packs houses with regularity. In the hands of Florida Grand Opera, it is eminently worth seeing, though maybe not for the reasons Saint-Saens had in mind.
By Camille Saint-Saens, libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire. Conducted by Stewart Robinson, Directed by Sandra Bernhard. With Denyce Graves, Jon Villars, Brian Jauhiainen, Joseph Michael Muir, and Corey Crider. Through May 6 at Florida Grand Opera, Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami. 800-741-1010; www.fgo.org.
Saint-Saens was a technical purist who believed in a strict adherence to form, and who ultimately emerged as a stodgy figure in the canon. His career was bookended by betters say, Puccini to the fore and Rossini to the aft, if you don't mind getting un-French with the idea who were less reverent, less critical, and more willing to rock.
While originally intended as a demonstration of a pure musical aesthetic, now Samson et Dalilais simply a very beautiful noise. Try to draw great meaning out of it, and you're in for a boring night. Take it as an aesthetic triumph, as a moment of sonic and visual beauty and of passion and deftly given voice, and you may leave the theater breathless.
Denyce Graves is an exceptional Dalila. Her lower register has, over the years, become a booming, earth-rending marvel, and her higher notes, while maybe not quite so creamy as they were fifteen years ago, remain strong and sure. If you were Samson, you'd have to jump her bones, too.
Jon Villars's Samson holds himself back through the first act, saving his voice for the bigger things to come. He roars through the second and third acts with the kind of voice that could bring a temple down on your head.
Moments of pleasure crop up in strange places. Jason Stearns, as the Philistine High Priest, has a dark and sparkly instrument, all velvety evil. Bass Stefan Szkafarowsky rumbles beautifully, sounding for all the world like a tamed, benevolent thunderstorm.
Samson et Dalila is a fine vocal showcase, but the true highlight of Florida Grand Opera's production may well be the production itself. The scenery on display here is uncanny: temple steps that seem to stretch hundreds of yards into an infinite desert; Delila's psychedelic prehistoric shag-pad; an epic and singularly depressing millstone; the Philistine's Temple of Dagon. The sets are utterly seductive: Beneath their gloriously hideous statue of Dagon, the Philistines go crazy in a balletic orgy to the strains of "Bacchanalia," while Samson stands eyeless in Gaza, looking glum. So alluring is the scene, and so entrancing is the music from the massively enthusiastic (if underpowered) orchestra, that most modern opera-goers will find themselves siding with the Philistines.