SamsonCamille Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila

Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 2010 | Jochem Hochstenbach, José Cura, Julia Gertseva, Stefan Stoll, Lukas Schmid, Ulrich Schneider, Andreas Heideker, Sebastian Haake, Alexander de Paula | Arthaus Musik

The question of whether Samson et Dalila might not be better suited to the setting of an oratorio than an opera has been a problematic issue ever since Saint-Saëns started work on it back in 1867, ten years before its first performance. With its biblical subject and choral emphasis, the original intention of the composer himself was that it should be an oratorio, but he was persuaded by the librettist Ferdinand Lemaire to turn it into an opera. The reality is that the completed work lies somewhere between opera and oratorio, omitting a great deal of the dramatic episodes that occur in the story of Samson and Delilah, while even some of the most famous and well-known scenes occur off-stage. In an attempt to make the function better as a drama, Argentinean tenor and stage director José Cura injects some contemporary references into his 2010 production of the work for Badisches Staatsoper, but while the quality of the work and its performance here are pretty much beyond reproach, the question of the work’s nature and its suitability for the stage remains unresolved as far as this production is concerned.

Designed and directed by Cura himself, it’s not a terribly imaginative production. The concessions towards modern relevance and contemporary allusion are half-hearted and heavy-handed, not really going much further than relating the enslavement of the Hebrew people and conflict in the Middle East to the corporate ambitions of oil companies in the region by setting a few oil-rigs on the stage. It’s a static set design that remains unchanged throughout Act I and Act III, the lighting permanently dark chiaroscuro, the only variation being the rather clichéd imagery of silhouetting the rigs against a burning red sunset in the first act and against the midnight blue of night in the third. It’s also uncommitted with regard to the contemporary setting, since although Samson and the Hebrews and even the soldiers wear modern or casual clothes, Delilah and her priestesses wear traditional white tunics, and Act II goes to some length, despite the sparseness of the decoration, to wrap Samson in the curtain backdrop in order to ensure that it retains the look and feel of traditional biblical imagery.

There’s little consistency to the concept and it’s so lacking any insightful observations about contemporary issues in the region that you wonder what the purpose is in (half-)updating it at all. If it’s an attempt to create a workable dramatic context for the work, it doesn’t really succeed, since the actual stage direction within these limiting sets remains fairly static, and even the ‘Danse des prêtresses de Dagon‘ consists of nothing more than a traditional processional march (although the beautiful young women seem fond of kissing and fondling each other elsewhere). Musically however, and in terms of the singing - with José Cura reprising a signature role and Julia Gertseva providing the necessary persuasive glamour as Delilah - there’s more than enough dramatic expression to make up for the lack of stagecraft and it’s here that the true qualities of the work, regardless of the uncertainties in its categorisation, are revealed. Cura, I find is a little too stentorian, sacrificing clarity of French diction for sonority in an old-fashioned way, but it’s a committed performance that, certainly in the third act, draws out and enhances the deepening sense of the visceral brutality of the drama and dark betrayal that it there to some extent in the score. The fine performance of Gertseva however, particularly in her duet with Cura, singing a powerful ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a sa voix‘, ensures that there are no weaknesses in the other vital aspects of this magnificent work.

The actual filming of the production itself however also raises some questions. The sleeve and booklet notes on the DVD (Cura even writing the liner notes) go to pains to convince us that this performance was recorded LIVE, but it’s clearly filmed without an audience present and, since some of the lip-syncing doesn’t match, it’s possibly edited together from a couple of different performances or has even been overdubbed. Certainly in the case of José Cura, his lip-movements and performance don’t reflect the delivery at the start of the first act, and he sings most of the third act from beneath a hood, so the full dramatic performance isn’t always there in the way that it might be before a live audience. Also, curiously, some of the other singing is done off-stage to the extent that you aren’t always sure whose voice you are hearing. In the case of the old Hebrew, for example, an actor (Walter Schreyeck) plays the role but the actual singing of the role is performed off-stage by another person (Ulrich Schneider). Again however, although there are close-ups and some different angles used, there doesn’t seem to be any actual trade-off in making this filmed performance any more visually interesting. Other than a brief flashback montage at the start of Act III though, there’s nothing too clever or distracting attempted either.

These curiosities in the staging and filming are however minor considerations and don’t take away from the fact that overall this is a terrific performance of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. The orchestra of the Badisches Staatstheater, conducted by Jochem Hochstenbach, give a strong account of the lyricism and the dark power of the work and they are assisted considerably in achieving the necessary impact by principals and by the outstanding work of the chorus. On the DVD release, there is a certain amount of reverb on the singing that takes away from the clarity a little, but the recording of the chorus and orchestration is fine, exhibiting lovely detail and tone. There’s good presence in the 5.1 surround mix, and the PCM stereo option is also excellent. The widescreen image quality is reasonably clear, considering the sharp contrasts on the darkened stage. The DVD is region-free, NTSC, dual-layer. Subtitles are English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Korean. There are no extra features, but the booklet contains notes by Cura and a full synopsis.