Love, lust, sex and assorted variations are a marketers dream material, sure to attract and sell. Thus has the Virginia Opera chosen to attempt to cash in on the action in its new season that proclaims “love that is not madness is not love.” So be it.
With that in mind, VOA’s first showing of this love inspired year was “Samson and Delilah” of Saint-Saens. Based on the Biblical story, it’s the seductive Delilah leaving Samson de-tressed and distressed, thus signaling a Philistine victory over the Hebrews. That is, before Samson alters the results by destroying the Philistine temple and all in it.
For this first VOA production of “Samson,” director-choreographer Paul Curran chose not a traditional setting but one cast in Fascist trappings of the 1930s. Having seen only traditional settings of “Samson,“ I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, it was a matter of minutes into this engaging endeavor Sunday in the Carpenter Center that I got it.
The treatment, with rare exception, did not harm the libretto’s intent. In fact, it seemed to enhance the overall impact, made more so by Curran’s desire to make opera relevant and, where appropriate, politically and integrally connected to injustice and persecution. Here, it weaves love, sex, politics, persecution and religion into a fine fabric.
Building on that base, set and costume designer Court Watson crafted stark sets and costumes appropriate to the dark times, complete with swastika-like symbols of rigid regime of hate and destruction, all accented by Driscoll Otto‘s dark, ominous lighting.
A “Samson” can often seem slow going. However not this one. Considered by many to be a two-person opera, Curran’s take was inclusive and allowed secondary characters to find importance and vibrancy, as well as a large chorus whose roles became essential to the action and led to an ensemble feel and engaging endeavor. It coupled dramatic action with equally dramatic singing to deliver a powerful product.
Derek Taylor (Samson) offered a rock solid soaring tenor, as well as dramatic reality as a Hebrew trying to remain true to his religion in the face of serious sexual temptation. He offered a fine blend of desire and restraint, thus the conflicts that led to his downfall.
As Delilah, Katharine Goeldner regaled us with her rich, creamy mezzo-soprano that found lyrical luxuriousness in the opera’s two celebrated arias “Spring Blossoms” and “My Heart Opens to Your Voice.” These were compelling, magical and emotional moments, among the best to be heard. As the temptress, Goeldner was cold, calculating and devious, using her outer mask of sincere love to deceive and destroy Samson. Her Delilah was a delight to watch and a mighty exciting thing to hear.
Similarly did baritone Michael Chioldi (High Priest of Dagon) and bass Stefan Szkafarowsky (an Old Hebrew) deliver impressively strong singing and solidly dramatic performances, helping direct adversarial thoughts about power and religion.
As for the chorus, this was one of the absolute best, most solid, rounded and convincing efforts the VOA has cast. They sang brilliantly and moved equally so in carrying out Curran’s choreography.
The big moment is the closing bacchanal wherein Samson destroys the temple. But before that, we were treated to a visual potpourri of depravity, hedonism, sexually provocative posing, and debauchery that was akin to “Cabaret’s” Kit Kat Klub (sic) on steroids. It wasn’t a Biblical bacchanal, but boy did it bring the house down, so to speak.
Musically, the Virginia Symphony responded to conductor Adam Turner’s lyrically and dramatically inspired baton, allowing a fine, artistic musical blend between pit and the stage that pulsed with emotion and appeal.