When Samson and Delilah was originally conceived by Camille Saint-Saëns, it was as an oratorio which is traditionally sung unstaged without costumes, scenery, or action. This may explain why Seattle Opera decided to bring this opera back to its stage for the first time since 1965 not as the opulent spectacle in which it is normally presented but in concert. Which is not to say that this production is without opulence or spectacle but, rather, that all of that is focused on the orchestra, chorus, and principal singers (with a tiny bit spared for J’Nai Bridges and her exceedingly fabulous ensembles).
Samson and Delilah is based on the biblical tale of the same name from the Old Testament in which Samson, trying to lead the Hebrews of Gaza out of bondage and into freedom from the Philistines, encounters Delilah. Mayhem, seduction, and ruin ensue.
With the decision to produce this Saint-Saëns opera staple as a concert, the onus falls on the performers to bring the brilliance and splendor to the stage and, boy do they deliver. Both making their Seattle Opera debuts are Yonghoon Lee as Samson and J’Nai Bridges as Delilah. While this is both of their first times gracing this stage, we can all hope and pray it will not be their last. Lee has such a bold and powerful tenor voice, it is no surprise that he is able to rouse the Israelites to rebellion. As one of opera’s greats in a long line of seductresses, Bridges brings strength and a raw, almost carnal sensuality to her performance of Delilah. She soars as easily through her massive register as she moves from dominating to vulnerable all with incredible dexterity. When Lee and Bridges are together, their chemistry is electric and their voices blend magnificently.
The Seattle Opera Orchestra gets so many opportunities to shine in this concert production and, under the deft and energetic baton of Ludovic Morlot, they take full advantage. The music is expressive and stunning and with the entire orchestra on stage we get to see the bows of the strings dance and the percussionists bang away as evocatively as any bacchanal dance could ever be. Although they are relegated to the very back of the stage, the Seattle Opera Chorus led by Chorus Master Michaella Calzaretta brings the robust and grand choral sound needed to fill the stage.
Samson and Delilah was presented in French with English subtitles at McCaw Hall January 20 at 7:30 PM and January 22 at 2:00 PM. While this was a limited run, hopefully the success of the concert presentation will lead to more!