SAMSON AND DELILAH – L’Amour et Glamour On the Re-Bound at SAN FRANCISCO OPERA

Our hearts open at thy sweet voice

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

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Samson and Delilah. Production photos by Terrence McCarthy

With SAMSON AND DELILAH as the opening production of San Francisco Opera’s 85th Season, General Director David Gockley maneuvers the company back onto the firmest of foundations and re-focuses attention to the War Memorial Opera House – and its 3300+ attendance capacity – as The City’s Cultural Home. Upon entering the House, its illustrious curtains temporarily out of sight – we are most cordially engaged into a Totally Other Reality. The eye hath not seen such decorous storybook grandeur. Like bookends on either side of the stage, towering Babylonian pillars support the staggered blocks of an ascending lintel. Behind the closed august purple-blue draperies wait the winds and furies of a once upon a time – some three millennia ago – in a land called Canaan, along the southwestern coastline of Gaza. Hanging above this enticing frame (created by production designer Douglas W. Schmidt) are the War Memorial’s rich and plump gold brocade swags with their heavy-hung tassels – all in the embrace of the magnificently gilded proscenium arch. From floor to ceiling as from earth to celestial heights – we can see that San Francisco Opera is back on track and that David Gockley is reaching for the stars. Now, let’s hear it!

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DAVID GOCKLEY – On Higher Ground

Just a few months shy of 130 years ago, composer and pianist Franz Liszt made a detour into the Destiny of Camille Saint-Saëns, cutting a permanet path into the composer’s legacy and shining a perpetual light onto the future of the operatic repertoire. Liszt had pushed the premiere of Wagner’s LOHENGRIN into Weimar, now he would extend a helping hand to SAMSON ET DALILA and step-up the tourist industry of the once provincial town. The French impresarios, being a trifle skittish about operatic treatments of sacred texts – oratorio being the exception and everything mythological fair game – put the kebash on Holy Figures singing of their blues in the night.

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VICTOR MATURE (Samson) and DELILAH – Oil on canvas, Richard Stergulz

Liszt, however – already a Third Order Franciscan and divinely in-the-know through MINOR ORDERS bestowed at the Vatican by Cardinal Hohenlohe – dangled a lucrative contract in front of Saint-Saëns. SAMSON ET DALILA would be given a fully staged production at the Grand Ducal Theatre, Liszt himself would conduct the Opening Night performance and – Coup d’Etat! – the French libretto of Ferdinand Lemaire would be translated into German. Plain German for plain people! The lyrics might just as well have been in Turkish – a first rate score is a first rate score!

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FRANZ LISZT and CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS

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Plaster cast of Liszt’s right hand and traveling crucifix, at Weimar – Samson and Delilah, by Paul Gustave Doré

Saint-Saëns treatment of the story is drawn from JUDGES, CHAPTER 16 – a familiar text to pre-Cecil B. de Mille theatre-goers. The opening verses are essentially the layout of a sting operation by the High Priest of Dagon and the alluring volupté of the valley, Delilah of Sorek. No need to include Chapters 13–15. 19th Cenury fine arts patrons already know that Delilah has nothing but vengeance in her heart for the muscle bound hero of the captive Israelites. Though Samson is perceived as anointed by his people – the Philistines’ experience of him is that of an illusive hothead terrorist who murders indiscriminately and as a reckess cad with their fairer sex. It’s not enough that he be captured and imprisoned since he is capable of escape. No, Samson must be tricked into revealing the secret of his strength and once divested of it – emasculated, humiliated, blinded, and demoralized.

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DELILAH (Olga Borodina) and THE HIGH PRIEST OF DAGON (Juha Uusitalo)

All that matters to Franz Liszt is that the form of Saint-Saëns lyrical score deserves an A+ and that its harmonic structure is free of emotional brouhaha. Obviously aware of the difference between Great Music and Great Theatre, Liszt knows that SAMSON et DALILA is rich with theatrical opportunity and will prove itself artistically rewarding to the seasoned vocalist capable of delivering its magnificent lines. On Sunday night, 2 December 1877, Franz Liszt stepped to the podium of Weimar’s Grand Ducal Theatre and conducted the world premiere of SAMSON und DALILA. The house went nuts. Since then the opera has remained on the boards, never diminished by musical trends, forever the delight of fashion designers (Carrie Robbins) and choreographers (Kenneth von Heidecke), and the perennial gold ring of every dramatic Mezzo-Soprano. “Samson”, on the other hand, just needs to be a stong dramatic tenor – such as our, Clifton Forbis – with a Herculean chest and big hairy arms.

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PAULINE GARCÍA-VIARDOT, Mezzo-Soprano, 1821–1910 and OLGA BORODINA at SF OPERA 2007

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CLIFTON FORBIS – SAMSON, 2007

Lighting designer Thomas J. Munn deserved a curtain call. Every production value summing up the answer to who-what-where-why-&-how is dependent on a brilliant schematic lighting design and flawless timing. Of particular beauty and disturbing drama was Munn’s eclipse of the sun in Act I. It was a touch of genius to suggest the finger of God (the angel of the Lord) as a wispy cloud slowly surrounding the sun’s diameter and then blocking it out with an eerie hue. Equally fascinating, the momentary shimmering effect as the shadow moved away.

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Again, Franz Liszt proves himself a seer and, in spite of his ecclesiastical garb, a likely hero to P.T. Barnum. Since S&D borders on the structure of a concert oratorio, all the soloists and ensemble (Ian Robertson, Chorus Director) and instrumentalists (the SF Opera orchestra being led by Patrick Summers) really-really have to do is know their part and not bump into the furniture. Stage director Sandra Bernhard expanded the tableaux and sprawled her cast members to perfection across the lush and exotic sets of Douglas W. Schmidt. Kenneth von Heidecke knows his choreography of the famous “Bacchanale” will be on AT&T PARK’s Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Vision 32:9 Led Scoreboard. No flim-flam fancy frou-frou for this crowd! Heidecke gives us a spread-eagle, high-wide-and-handsome, out and way-out orgy. Munn’s lighting left little to the imagination.

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BACCHANALE – A 5-6-7-8

There are four more chances to see San Francisco Opera’s splendid production of SAMSON AND DELILAH. To order tickets on-line:
Wednesday, September 19th at 7:30 pm
Saturday, September 22nd at 7:30 pm
Tuesday, September 25th, at 8:00 pm
Friday, September 28th, at 8:00 pm
Friday night’s production will be simulcast at AT&T Park. It is absolutely free.

Ready when you are, C.B.!!!

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DAGON – God of grain, discoverer of the plough – Shall we Bacchanale

See Seán’s recent articles and reviews:
THOMAS HAMPSON and TENOR STUART SKELTON Perform with San Francisco Symphony, September 26th – 29th
MOSCOW SRETENSKY MONASTERY CHOIR – Tonight At Davies Symphony Hall
SAMSON AND DELILAH – FREE SIMULCAST AT AT&T PARK, SEPTEMBER 28TH
FREE SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK – Your Midsummer Night’s Dream begins Saturday
SOPRANO RENÉE FLEMING FEATURED GUEST STAR AT SYMPHONY OPENING, SEPTEMBER 19th
THE SCULPTURE OF LOUISE NEVELSON: Constructing a Legend
A CONVERSATION WITH JIM BROCHU AND STEVE SCHALCHLIN – The New Conservatory Theatre extends “The Big Voice: God or Merman?” until August 26th
HOTEL CASABLANCA – World Premiere in San Francisco
An Interview with PASCAL MOLAT, Principal Dancer of the San Francisco Ballet

See Related: STAGE reviews by Seán Martinfield archive

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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@gmail.com.

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