Decades before the old Hollywood studio system discovered that Biblical epics could make a lot of money, the opera composers of 19th century Europe discovered the same thing. Toss together a few robes with swords, sandals and gold headbands, and you had the makings of a barn burner. And there were simply more stories in the Bible than anybody knew what to do with.
Of course, by the 1930s, the mostly Jewish heads of Hollywood studios were happy when a good Jesus story kept the cash registers ringing, all theology aside. One Jesus movie even billed itself as “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” just to rub it in. In 19th–century Europe, however, the advantages of the Hebrew Scriptures (then called the Old Testament, a Disney-like pre-show for the New), were manifest. No one knew any pesky facts about the cultures, languages or costumes involved. Plus, there simply were a ton of stories. By the beginning of the 20th century, almost anybody who got his (or occasionally her) name into the Old Testament had an opera.
In the Washington National Opera production currently on display at Kennedy Center, French composer Camille Saint-Saens almost could have saved himself some ink – he could have named his Biblical epic simply Delilah, thus really confusing things when Tom Jones released his hit song. But no, the story was always referred to as Samson and Delilah, so Samson and Delilah it would remain. It was and is a two-character opera with a couple ancient ethnic groups walking around as window dressing. And at times, in this production, it threatens to become a one-character opera.
Mezzo soprano J’Nai Bridges is a native of Washington (the state, not the District), and along the path to her career she’s earned praise (from Black Entertainment Television) as the “Beyonce of Opera.” Who knows if such a thing is good or bad, but her singing of Delilah’s music is intense, accurate, lyrical and, dare we say, soulful. As a mezzo, that is at least possible. Her acting is subtle and at times sublime. And even her dancing does what it needs to do.
Watching her seduce the Israelites’ primary (perhaps only) secret weapon by learning his secret and cutting off his long hair, you never once question what she’s about, or that she believes completely in her hate-fueled mission. Bridges has already portrayed Carmen for San Francisco Opera, and she turns Delilah into a sultry Carmen of the desert, assuming what she and her fellow Philistines lived in was desert.
Musically, Rome-born tenor Roberto Aronica is everything you’d hope a Samson would be. His powerful ringing top notes suggest a future among Wagnerians, but for now Verdi seems the man’s cup of tea. Still, in this French opera, he’s most given to praying for victory over the Philistines and then for forgiveness for letting his team down. His best moments do happen in Delilah’s boudoir, where he turns the temptress’ only memorable aria (“Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix”) into a love duet with style and grace. We don’t ever see this Samson pull down the pagan temple. In fact, we don’t see him grab hold of anything. But more on that in a moment.
Peter Kazaras directs the whole affair with as much spirit as he can muster, drawing decently etched lesser characters from Neal Bouley as the High Priest, Tomas Tomasson as Ahimelech (excellent dying) and Peter Volpe as the “Old Hebrew,” presumably a rabbi. Erhard Rom does a convincing job of set design, though mostly relying on lighting designer Robert Wierzel and especially projection designer S. Katy Tucker. The latter two create what amounts to a “dark and stormy night,” specifically when Delilah is breaking down Samson’s defenses in her bedroom, but stylistically throughout.
Though 19th century opera ballets usually seem a waste of nice leg muscles, Eric Sean Fogel comes up with an unexpected winner in the otherwise barren Act II. Drawing on memories of Minoan frescoes at Knossos in Crete and of ‘Afternoon of a Faun” danced by Nijinsky (and later Nureyev) to music by Debussy, Fogel serves up a flowing centerpiece of exotic movements that anybody should buy into as authentically Philistine. It seems primal enough, and it does take place in a temple, after all.
One last note: in the old days, if not quite the Old Testament, the tenor playing Samson had to pull stuff down around him at the end. And audiences would try to overlook that styrofoam falls differently from stone. In the WNO production, destruction of the Philistine temple is all accomplished with projections. Fiery explosion follows fiery explosion like the Fourth of July, with a motif introduced more than once of dark things fluttering their way to earth. The trouble is: since Tucker could just as easily have made Samson launch the Starship Enterprise from his cupped lands, the faux explosions neither destroy nor excite.