writers on dancing


Expecting Flesh But Getting Blood

"Samson et Dalila"
Washington National Opera
Opera House, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
May 17, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

The composer Camille Saint-Saëns has seemed an endearing character to me ever since reading Klaus Mann's Tchaikowsky novel, "Symphonie Pathetique". While at Cambridge University to receive honorary degrees, the two masters let their hair down to each other, so to speak, and indulged their love of ballet by attempting a pas de deux. It is a hilarious scene as Mann tells it. In this encounter, the worldly wise St.-Saëns exerted a cheerful influence on Tchaikowsky. The year, according to a St.-Saëns biographer was 1892 and according to a Tchaikowsky biographer was 1893. Later, in the 20th Century, St.-Saëns' response to music by another Russian composer was reported in the press. It was 1913, and St.-Saëns had become the elder statesman of French music. He reacted with disgust to the young Igor Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du printemps", premiered by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It is, therefore, ironic that the "famously depraved danse bacchanale" in St.-Saëns' 1868/77 opera "Samson et Dalila" has now been choreographed by Vladimir Angelov as a very gory "Rite of Spring".

The ballet takes place in the opera's final act and represents the ritual in progress within the Philistine temple to which the betrayed and blinded Samson has been brought as a captive. At the end, of course, Samson's strength returns and he brings the temple tumbling down. The act opens with an orchestral prelude that is pungently rhythmic in character. These measures might almost be an "anticipation" of Stravinsky's pulsations, but when the curtain rises, St.-Saëns' music becomes more melodic. The actual danse bacchanale section is of a sensual timbre and seductive modality (it could be considered an "anticipation" of the orientalism in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherezade"). The choreographer, however, took his principal cue from the prelude. The corps de ballet was deployed in a large circle around the empty center of the stage. The dancers, shrouded figures, lay prone on the floor. Into the center stepped, with balletic elegance, the figure of a young man. He wore little except lines painted on his torso and limbs, but carried a dagger that he manipulated ostentatiously. Individuals from the singing chorus and supers who had been grouped at the sides of the stage, removed the prone figures' coverings, releasing them to dance. They arched and contracted, they were pliant and rhythmic, at first on the ground and then upright, prancing so that their circle rotated around the male soloist. He (Fidel Garcia) had become airborne, and celebrated his dagger with jumps and leaps. Then his attention shifted. He took up a piece of cloth and focused on the dancers surrounding him. One of them, a female, was chosen and handed the cloth. She (Blanche Hampton) reacted with fright. The circle's spin picked up and this Chosen One was sucked into its center as if shipwrecked in a whirlpool. At the center the male soloist, the executioner, awaited her with his dagger. The ground beneath them rose into the air and, above the heads of the temple congregation, he disemboweled her. The Chosen One's death was a long drawn out action (like Tybalt's in the Prokofiev/Lavrovsky "Romeo and Juliet"). Underneath the suspended platform, Dalila gathered the victim's blood into a bowl.

So graphic a depiction of ritual sacrifice seemed to take the audience, expecting flesh but getting blood, aback. Stylistically, too, the danse bacchanale was the most modernistic aspect of the production. Try as he might with group architecture for the singing chorus, stage director Peter McClintock couldn't get 19th Century melodrama out of "Samson et Dalila". It is too embedded in Ferdinand Lemaire's libretto (and in Christopher Bergen's translation for the supertitles). The Saint-Saëns music has been controversial. Some critics (The Washington Post's Tim Page; my seatmate at this performance, David Johnson) find the hot spots in it few and far between. I can't quite agree. Usually there is something of musical and dramatic interest going on, if not in the vocal writing then in the orchestral. Act 1's choruses do have some stodgy blocks of oratorio sound rather than passionate polyphony. The arias for Samson as well as other male soloists are ample in scope and, while only a few are bold, all have dramatic substance. Dalila has the richest music. Her Act 1 entrance is wondrously lyrical, sometimes subtly and at other times tempestuously, and so is Act 2, which she practically owns. Act 3 has the opera's least satisfactory music although its ballet and scenic effects bring it alive visually.

Angelov's other dance, the one for Dalila's entourage in Act 1, was minimal. If steps weren't wanted, richer groupings and torso movement might have enhanced the action without distracting from the principal singers. As Dalila, Olga Borodina's voice was velvet, yet shaded with drama. She is a large, glamorous woman and fair actress. Carl Tanner's Samson, despite his stiff bearing, was sung big in an appealingly open way. Giovanni Reggioli's conducting maximized Saint-Saëns' orchestral coloration and counterpoint.

Volume 3, No. 20
May 23, 2005

u copyright ©2005 George Jackson



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last updated on May 23, 2005