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DENYCE GRAVES, mezzo-soprano: Samson et Dalila at the LA Opera      by Jacquelyn Giles

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Samson et Dalila
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As Act II opens, Dalila waits in her cushioned lair and sings of Samson, “He is mine, he is my slave”.

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves could just as well have been singing about the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion for Los Angeles Opera’s fifth performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila.

“Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse,” she says.
(Love, come and aid my weakness.)

As Dalila, Ms. Graves seduced the audience as surely as she did Samson.

This artist is gifted with a gorgeous voice able to roar or purr on demand with strong and secure top notes and rich, full mezzo “money notes” which retain a womanly warmth below the staff. She wisely uses her “chest” voice sparingly, without dragging it into her middle range, a practice which decimates voices and shortens careers.

Photo © Ken Howard, courtesy LA Opera

Since she does not contort her mouth to produce the sound she wants, her expressive face freely reflects the emotions she portrays. Physically, she epitomizes the femme fatale who lures Samson to abandon God and his people. After her splendid Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix, who could dare cast the first stone at the besotted Samson?

Listen to music clips from Dalila's beautiful arias:
from Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix* from Printemps qui commence** from Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse!**
from the album "Denyce Graves: French Opera Arias" (Virgin Classics)                       BUY THE CD
from the album "Denyce Graves: Voce di Donna" (RCA Victor 09026-63509-2)         BUY THE CD

For three of seven performances, this Los Angeles Opera production had Placido Domingo who was San Francisco’s Samson in the original 1981 presentation. Gary Lakes was assigned the remaining four as Domingo was off to the Metropolitan Opera to sing Canio in the season-opening I Pagliacci. Tenor Gary Lakes, in his second appearance as Samson, initially struck us as dramatically lethargic and vocally distressed, especially in passages above the staff. Better moments came in the opening scene of Act III, as the defeated Samson, blinded and chained to a millstone, begs for God’s mercy and forgiveness. The music lies mostly in mid-range, and the orchestration is more transparent, permitting Mr. Lakes some beauty of tone and unforced, expressive singing. Four years ago, Mr. Lakes sang Don José in a concert performance of Carmen with the San Diego Symphony. As it happens, my companion at Samson et Dalila, sang in the San Diego Master Chorale which provided the chorus, and remembered a much fresher voice. Tenors who can sing the dramatic repertoire are few, and Mr. Lakes has some fine work to his credit, so let us hope the hurdles he encountered in this Samson prove to be transitory.

Gregory Yurisich’s High Priest is a nasty chap whose zeal to destroy Samson is clearly motivated as much by lust as devotion to Dagon. Even as he plots Samson’s downfall with Dalila, he can’t keep his hands off her, despite her obvious lack of interest in his advances. No matter, it is a rare treat to see a “bad guy baritone” with more than one dimension. Yurisich’s sturdy and pleasing voice met the demands of the score especially well in that scene.

As Abimelech, despotic Satrap of Gaza, Richard Bernstein sang powerfully and and managed to make his character believably hateable in a short, but important role. After his whip-and-tongue-lashing of the enslaved Hebrews, justice was done as they delivered him into Samson’s hands to be strangled with his own whip.

Louis Lebherz as the Old Hebrew who prophetically warns Samson to shun Dalila, sang sonorously and acted affectingly. With a nod to Stanislavski, his may be a relatively “small part”, but he is no “small actor”. With all his operatic experience, he is obviously a mature artist, but he could not be as aged as he appeared, yet sound so well. Coke Morgan, Cedric Berry and Bruce Sledge performed respectably, and respectively, as First Philistine, Second Philistine and a Philistine Messenger.

Conductor Lawrence Foster and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra found the essence of Saint-Saens’ exotic and evocative score as they provided excellent support for the solo voices. With few exceptions, the singers could be easily heard in the most fortissimo climaxes, and for that, credit must be shared among the singers and the orchestra’s responsiveness to Mr. Foster’s direction. All operatic conductors should enjoy the benefit of the sort of early experience Mr. Foster had conducting ballet, as a partial preparation for dealing with opera directors, singers and dancers, in addition to the orchestra and holding it all together in exemplary style, as he did in this production. Kurt Mazur, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, told Beverly Sills in a recent interview that he had “fled the opera” essentially because of the lack of sufficient rehearsal time and other stressful aspects of preparing an opera. How fortunate for opera-goers that Lawrence Foster stayed.

The Los Angeles Opera Chorus, under William Vendice, sang with musicality, beauty and dignity as the oppressed Hebrews and shifted to appropriate abandon as debauched devotees of Dagon in the Bacchanal. They are not responsible for a few bits of hackneyed business like the “impulse” to run, as one, downstage right and raise their arms in prayerful unison, at the same angle. Opera choruses do as they are directed. Chorus members must be trained both as musicians and singers, and many have solo quality voices as fine as some of the principals. We need only try to imagine our favorite operas without these devoted artists to appreciate their essential contributions.

Nicholas Joel who directed the original 1981 San Francisco presentation returned, but few changes were evident this time around probably because this production still works well. The High Priest in the video of the earlier production was not as intent on groping Dalila as in the L.A. version, but it worked and Hollywood is ,after all, just next-door. Samson et Dalila clamors for the full-on “Cecil B. Demille-ian” treatment of this production. The sets by Douglas Schmidt came complete with silhouetted palm trees, massive sphinxes and idols, sumptuous costumes and seductive lighting effects by Kurt Landisman. Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr would have loved his Gaza. The destruction of the temple was a technical triumph -- not one piece of temple debris bounced betraying its styrofoam origin. Carrie Robbins' costumes were improved by discarding some of the sillier headgear and allowing for physical differences between the earlier cast and this one. Fortunately, Mr. Yurisich and the audience were spared the space-helmet-with-horns Dagon’s head worn by the High Priest in San Francisco’s 1981 production, and Richard Bernstein dispensed with the purple, not particularly regal cap of the earlier Abimelech, in favor of a menacing, biblical-skinhead look .

The Bacchanal music in the final scene of the opera has been so freely hijacked for “hootchy-kootchy” use that it is too easily forgotten how truly unusual and exotic is Saint-Saens music. Most of the 1981 production’s choreography of the Bacchanal highlighted a solo male dancer, but Daniel Pelzig’s L.A.Opera Bacchanal was truly a group effort - as orgies usually are, I’m told. An abundance of slithering, writhing, and leaping by attractive, highly athletic and bendable dancers of both genders provided something enjoyable for everyone.

Though Saint-Saens conceived Samson et Dalila as an oratorio, and production as such may be possible, it is difficult to find a reason for doing so, except possibly to save money on sets, costumes, and dancers. Los Angeles Opera’s Samson et Dalila is a musical and visual extravaganza that does credit to both elements. It is not meant to be a lesson in “good taste”, though tasteful musical interpretation is a great strength; nor a morality play, even if poor sappy Samson would have been wiser heeding the Old Hebrew’s admonition to resist Dalila.

This Samson et Dalila is a great musical entertainment, and the Los Angeles Opera can be proud to have carried it off so well.

- Jacquelyn Giles

©Jacquelyn Giles , 1999. All rights reserved. Ms. Giles is a FanFaire friend and guest writer. She has been a lover of opera since seeing her first Kathryn Grayson film at the age of five. At nine, she heard her first Metropolitan Opera matinee broadcast and determined to become an opera singer. Ms. Giles lives in San Diego, still sings, and follows the opera scene closely. See also Jackie's account of Regina Resnik's "Carmen in Omaha."

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