Opening night of an opera has a special excitement to it; opening night of a season is extra-special; opening night for a company premier of an infrequently performed opera is extra-extra-special. Friday night, September 14, 2011 had all that and then some. The air was electric when José Luis Moscovich, General Director (and Conductor) of West Bay Opera appeared on stage to welcome the audience. A surprisingly large number of hands went up when he asked, “Is this your first West Bay Opera?”
After the opera I asked him why he had dared to open the season with a relatively unknown opera and he said, “Because Palo Alto audiences expect us to be bold.” And judging by the size of the audience, the excellence of the performance, and the enthusiastic applause at the end, his daring was justified.
The first act was opera at its very best. For much of the act, the Chorus was the star of the show. They were onstage the entire time – twenty-some Hebrew slaves and a handful of Philistine guards. Aside from a few brief solo lines by Samson (Percy Martinez) and even fewer by the Philistine Abimelech (Matthew Lovell) all of the music was by the chorus and the orchestra. And what glorious music Camille Saint-Saëns wrote, and how magnificently the Chorus sang it. Almost more than the ear could take. Meanwhile the eye was feasting on the overwhelming Act I set dominated by three massive pillars.
You know, the full chorus of the San Francisco Opera can certainly be impressive, with chorus and orchestra each having about a hundred members – West Bay Opera has maybe a quarter of that number. But War Memorial has about 10 times the seating capacity of Lucie Stern and probably 30 times the volume. I tell you, never have I felt so saturated by sound and sight as I did during the first third of Act I last night.
With no disrespect to the great voices of Percy Martinez (Samson) and Cybele Gouverneur (Delilah), the real stars at this point were composer Camille Saint-Saëns, conductor José Luis Moscovich, Chorus Master Bruce Olstad, and set designer Jean-François Revon. And, of course, all of the individuals who make up the chorus and orchestra.
The Biblical story of Samson and Delilah is well known. In return for a vow to never cut his hair, Samson is given super-human strength and immunity to single-handedly defeat the Philistines. The Philistine priestess Delilah successfully vamps Samson, worms out his secret, sexes him to exhaustion, and cuts off his hair while he sleeps. But God grants him a grand finale exit from life, restoring his powers just long enough for him to pull down the pillars of the temple, thus crushing all the Philistine leaders to death.
It’s a grim tale, and Saint-Saëns does nothing to soften it. With the exception of the supernumerary Angel of God, (Walter Li) and the Old Hebrew (Carlos Aguilar), there are no characters that elicit my sympathy or admiration. Samson is granted this extraordinary power to save his people from slavery, but allows himself to be seduced – and more than once. I can understand and forgive his gonads overpowering his brain on the spur of the moment. Afterwards he seems to realize the danger, but instead of asking the Old Hebrew for help in keeping away from her, he sneaks off to his fatal rendezvous.
I suppose one could admire Delilah for her patriotism, but she is apparently motivated solely by an unexplained personal hatred expressed by her taunting contempt for Samson when he is powerless – not at all by a true patriotism. The rest of the Philistines are portrayed as sadistic savages.
The Hebrews just sit around whining to their god because he let them get into this terrible position of slavery and telling him to do something about. I certainly don’t qualify as an authority, since I don’t believe in a god who hears personal prayers – but it seems to me that if there were such a god he would be a lot more sympathetic if their prayers were something like, “Dear God, we’re in a terrible fix; please help us figure out something we can do to get out of it.”
It is now Monday morning and yesterday afternoon I saw the Sunday matinee performance of Samson and Delilah. It is a wonderful luxury to see two performances of the same production so close together. Friday there was the electric excitement of opening night plus watching the unfamiliar plot unfold. Sunday I could pay more attention to the music and the stage action plus the fact that the cast had had the equivalent of one more rehearsal and delivered a smoother performance. In particular, it seemed to me that the two title characters interacted more smoothly with each other.
Time to mention the ballet. Early operas always included a ballet which often had only the most tenuous relation to the plot. The Philistines’ plan was to have a Bacchanal (elite word for Orgy) for the priests and priestesses culminating in the sacrifice of Samson to their god, Dagon. Ideal spot for a ballet – and another opportunity for WBO to make a virtue of necessity. There was no room on the stageful of Philistines for a conventional ballet, so Choreographer Yannis Adoniou brought only three of his KUNST-STOFF Dance Company dancers (Bruno Augusto, Katie Gaydos, and Daiane Lopes de Silva) to the party. They did some of their sexy and athletic dancing in the small center space, but they also circulated among the priests and priestesses and subtly included them in their orgiastic behavior.
Time’s up. I know I haven’t told you about who sang which high and low notes, etc., but you had much better experience that for yourselves. Come to one or both of the final performances this coming weekend on Saturday, October 22 and a matinee the next day. Look for me in Seat E2 if you come Saturday. This is a rarely performed opera well worth seeing three times!
Mark your calendars for the remaining two productions in this season’s ambitious program:
May 25-Jun 3
Aida by Giuseppe Verdi
Call the WBO box Office at 650-424-9999 or visit their website at wbopera.org.
The Opera Nut
Lucie Stern Theatre
Palo Alto CA 94306
1305 Middlefield Road
Except as noted otherwise, all photos by Otak Jump
This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on October 17, 2011