Samson et Dalila - Deutsche Oper Berlin, 15 May 2011 (first night)
Patrick Kinmonth's pedigree as a set designer of flair and imagination is immediately obvious in this production, only the second opera he has directed. We find ourselves in the Merchant Ivory version of the late nineteenth century, where the frocks are exquisite, the draperies sumptuous, and the sets bathed in glowing penumbral lighting. But it's not as vacuous as it first looks - though it might have been better if it was.
The conflicts of the Hebrews and Philistines are reflected in the tensions of Paris at the time of the Franco-Prussian wars. Each set is centred around a railway carriage and tracks, culminating in a temple-rending finale (no pillars, no temple) where banquet guests strip down to their underwear as a train rolls in.
I have no doubt the obvious Auschwitz reference is entirely intentional, but claiming that racial intolerance in nineteenth century Paris led to the Holocaust is both provocative and plain wrong - and, in the context of its exquisite imagery, borders on Nazi chic. Following the gratuitous rape of Dalila by Samson in the second act, it smacked of empty controversy for its own sake, a clumsy attempt to distinguish the Glyndebourne-ready aesthetic from mere decorator-opera. No wonder the Berlin audience were baying for blood at the end.
Musically, it was a different matter. The Deutsche Oper orchestra were in the best form I've heard for a very long time under the technically precise yet instinctively dramatic baton of Alain Altinoglu. Their sound was full-bodied, luxuriant, and thrilling, and the lengthy ballets/intermezzi were the high point of the evening. Samson et Dalila is often seen as second-class sub-Wagner; the incredibly talented Altinoglu made it sound as if it should be in every company's repertoire.
The chorus sounded excellent as ever, though they were over-employed for decorative purposes and fussily choreographed throughout. The principals on the other hand seemed to have been left to their own devices. Shoved into photo-friendly tableaux, their interaction was minimal and their gestures straight from the book.
The strange conceit of presenting Dalila as a bourgeois housewife, married-with-child to Samson, can't have made Vesselina Kasarova's job easy. Graceful and subdued, she sang more with delicacy than passion, her fabled quirks less in evidence than usual.
José Cura overcame initial wobbles to produce some powerful, ringing sounds, though his colourless portrait failed to disguise the fact that the part of Samson is woefully underwritten in dramatic terms. Laurent Naouri on the other hand livened things up with a dramatically incisive High Priest.
Some technical cock-up left Cura and Kasarova stranded in the front of the safety curtain for an unseemly time before the curtain call-proper began. Their awkwardness highlighted a lack of chemistry vaguely apparent throughout the evening. Perhaps it's just as well Kinmonth didn't go for the traditional sword'n'sandals approach.
Production photos (above): Barbara Aumüller/Deutsche Oper Berlin (more here)
Curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com