Opéra de Montréal celebrates its 35th anniversary with a new production remarkable for its large-scale, made-in-Montreal projections. They dominate an otherwise pared-back approach to Saint-Saëns’ opera, which is also aurally remarkable thanks to homegrown contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the titular femme fatale.
Samson et Dalila, which premiered in Germany in 1877, draws on the Old Testament story of the Hebrew Samson who, imbued with God-given strength, leads a rebellion against the Philistines but is soon distracted by the temptress Dalila. Urged on by the Philistine High Priest, she seduces Samson and discovers the secret of his power. Samson is captured and abandoned by God, but eventually recovers purpose and strength enough to destroy the Philistine temple.
Lemieux made her role debut as Dalila on opening night. Though she, like the other cast members, was given little to do in the vast, largely empty stage, Lemieux commanded the space and communicated a great deal, from apparent love to hatred, through physical movement and expression. Most of all, she communicated vocally, singing with splendid power and control. She has beautiful tone that is equally rich at the top and bottom of her range.
German tenor Endrik Wottrich has the physique for Samson, but on this night at least, lacked the dramatic and particularly the vocal force required to play the hero. This was never more apparent than in the temple-smashing climax, which had the drama sucked out of it because Wottrich’s singing flagged. He was at his best in Act II’s love duet with Lemieux: the warmth of his voice was revealed in this musically lyrical and physically static scene.
With the exception of Gregory Dahl, whose handsome baritone and strong presence delivered a worthy High Priest, the handful of other principals, though capable, had little chance to shine. As always, the Opéra de Montréal Chorus, choreographed to good effect both as the suffering Hebrews and the sybaritic Philistines, delivered an excellent vocal performance. Their Hebrews’ lamentations, evocative of traditional Christian plainsong, were particularly pleasing. Under Jean-Marie Zeitouni‘s baton, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal was a touch languid, but suitably lyrical.
Alain Gauthier’s production may irritate those familiar with Samson et Dalila, as it jettisons some significant but costly elements, most notably the dancers from Act III’s bacchanal, which is usually a wild affair demonstrating the Philistine’s sensuality. The seductive Act I dance by Dalila and her priestesses is also stripped back, and the mill wheel usually associated with Samson’s incarceration is gone.
The set is minimalist, comprising 20 high panels forming a massive, inverted-L-shaped background. The occasional, seamless movement of these panels to form doors, gateways and columns makes things interesting, while the images projected onto them are arresting.
From the moment the curtain goes up, it’s clear that a contemporary, innovative element has been injected into this dramatically sparse old opera, as dark, inky swirls organically billow across a bright blue-and white background on the screen of panels – the first of many video projections that create either atmosphere or physical elements, such as gorgeously decorated columns. The evolution of Act II’s projections is particularly compelling, as video of sand dunes, overlaid with a delicate filigree design, becomes a sandstorm, then a stormy sky and a starry night. Those live dancers usually seen in Act III are evoked by projected video of two nude dancers, who writhe among explosions of dust.
These videos by Circo de Bazuka, and the set designed by two more locals, Anick La Bissonnière and Éric Olivier Lacroix, makes a virtue of Opéra de Montréal’s modest budget (which usually prompts conservative choices). The shock of the new is balanced by the production’s classic costumes: sombre for the Hebrews, shimmering, jewel-toned drapery for the Philistines, and fabulous headdresses for Dalila.
While this Samson et Dalila is not entirely satisfying, Opéra de Montréal has mounted a worthy 35th birthday celebration notable for its homegrown elements – including Lemieux, for whom Dalila could well become a significant role in her repertoire.
Samson et Dalila continues January 27, 29 and 31. More information at www.operademontreal.com
Patricia Maunder is a Montreal-based writer and editor