Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila

La Monnaie at Bozar, Brussels, Sunday March 25 2007

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Chorus Master: Piers Maxim. Dalila: Olga Borodina. Samson: Carl Tanner. Le Grand Prêtre de Dagon: Jean-Philippe Lafont. Abimélech, satrape de Gaza: Federico Sacchi. Un vieil Hébreu: Chester Patton. Un messager: Tie Min Wang. Premier Philistin: André Grégoire. Deuxième philistin: Bernard Giovani. Orchestre symphonique et choeurs de la Monnaie.

[Photo: Shafahi]

This concert peformance of Samson et Dalila took place in the handsomely-restored art deco concert hall - complete with organ - of Horta's otherwise grim Palais des Beaux-Arts, or "Bozar" as it's now called, in Brussels. Though it seems fairly obvious to me that if composers intended their operas for the stage, staged they should be, Samson works quite well as oratorio: strong orchestral support, plenty of good stuff for the chorus, etc., apart from the odd detail explicit only on stage, e.g. the child who guides Samson to the pillars at the end. And when you see photos of some productions of the piece, you might be tempted to conclude that a concert performance is perhaps a blessing after all...

Kazushi Ono went for steady tempi and, overall, a round, full, symphonic sound not especially wedded to the typical French ideals of transparency, taste, lightness and elegance: more Hollywood than Bois de Boulogne, and at the end of the Bacchanale, unashamedly vulgar - but exciting - noise . The revealing acoustics probably played a part in this, with the all-wooden stage and the organ loft behind acting as a sounding-box: the double-basses, for example, had such remarkable oomph in the opening bars that people craned their necks to see what was going on; same for the castanets later; and the chorus, lined up right in front of the organ, set your ear-drums ringing. There was occasional horn trouble and the woodwinds, who managed overall to achieve that characteristically French, organ-like, Franck-y sound, were more clunky than supple in their "forest murmurs" moments; but in all La Monnaie's orchestra was on good form.

The men in the cast were doing perfectly fine till Dalila came along.

The supporting basses were strong: Chester Patton, in particular, had all the notes (for once) of a Sarastro (which he has sung) and remarkable, grave stage presence - though far too young and handsome for the part. Jean-Philippe Lafont was Jean-Philippe Lafont. I'm not sure I know how to translate "gueuler comme un veau". What does a bullock do? Bray? Whatever: he sang full blast, as usual, from start to finish, and with the usual vast vibrato, but all under control and undeniably one way of playing the character.

Carl Tanner has lots going for him. His voice is big, he hits all the notes (slamming down his music stand to make sure nothing would get in the way of his last, triumphant, top one) and you can tell what he's singing. The only thing lacking is more edge to his timbre, which is what the French might call "felted", i.e. fairly soft and chalky, to allow it to sound above the full orchestra. This would presumably be less of a problem if the orchestra were in the pit, not massed right behind him.

So it would have been a very good concert anyway. But then, along came Olga Borodina to wipe the floor with the men and lift the evening to an altogether higher plane. Good though her partners were, she is patently in another league. She has volume (and more in reserve) and projection and a rich, dark bronze timbre, now veering towards that of an alto, with enough edge to be audible whatever racket the orchestra may be kicking up behind. The notes are spot-on, however unkind Saint-Saëns may have been with Dalila, sending her up to a ferociously high note then thrusting her down, within bars, into baritone regions. Runs, when required, are no trouble. Note values are wonderfully business-like: a dictation of the score. Her French had my French friends amazed.

All this was carried off with as much apparent effort as reading a newspaper, ironing or making tea, as if she were singing Dalila as a break between more strenuous activites. Borodina's acting was limited to one expression: the peculiarly Russian, contemptuous surliness of the lady you found guarding every floor in Soviet hotels. Nevertheless, the old lady beside me admitted that during Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix, more particularly at Réponds à ma tendresse, réponds à ma tendresse, she tingled all over and had tears in her eyes.

So, though Samson and his friends (and enemies) were good, it was Delilah who brought the house down.

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