OPERA IN THE PARK
Samson and Delilah (Saint Saens)
W.A.Opera Company and Chorus
Supreme Court Gardens
Reviewed by Neville Cohn
Despite competing events such as a concert at Leeuwin Estate and the Western Force versus Chiefs rugby match, some fifteen thousand spectators turned up for what has become one of the most loved Perth institutions: the annual Opera in the Park presentation in Supreme Court Gardens.
Seated on rugs or lawn, mums and dads with kiddies in arms or prams, surrounded by an agreeable clutter of eskies, picnic baskets, chicken salad and chardonnay bottles, were an exemplarily well behaved audience experiencing what for most would probably have been a first encounter with Saint Saens’ operatic treatment of the biblical story of Samson.
In passing, it’s worth mentioning that, despite the immense inherent drama of this ancient story (which, prior to Saint Saens’ work, was given at least eleven operatic treatments including one by Rameau to a libretto by none other than Voltaire) no one has so far succeeded in creating a setting that is fully worthy of it.
Seldom heard anywhere in the antipodes, the ancient story of the Bible’s muscle man and the faithless temptress Delilah is, for much of the work and especially in Acts 1 and 2 – dare one whisper it? – as arid and featureless as the desert sands that surround Gaza where the opera is set. Thousands of years later, Gaza is still very much in the news – and for all the worst reasons.
Stuart Skelton in the eponymous role was star of the evening, a tenor ideally suited to the role. For much of the performance, he produced the most agreeable stream of mellow sound in phrasing that was the hallmark of refined musicianship. Certainly, he adapted chameleon-like to the many interpretative nuances of the part. The closing moments of the opera were particularly affecting as Samson – his locks shorn by Delilah (an event that, oddly, is not mentioned in the work), his strength dissipated as a result and, in Milton’s chilling phrase ‘eyeless in Gaza’ – calls on the Lord who gives back Samson’s strength to bring Dagon’s temple crashing down on the Philistines.
Bernadette Cullen sang Delilah. Some occasional hardness of tone aside, she presented her arias with considerable expressiveness – but in Softly Awakes My heart, that most famous excerpt from the opera, strings sounded rather too thin and scrappy, the semiquaver accompaniment lacking that pulsing quality that is so crucial an interpretative requirement.
Acts 3 and 4 yielded some of the most satisfying listening dividends of the evening. The fake-Middle Eastern Bacchanale dance sequence – imitated again and again down the years by composers for trashy, Arabian Nights-type movies – came across in fine style. Laurels to Joel Marangella; his sinuous oboe line was heard to excellent advantage here.
Under Brian Castles-Onion’s direction, the W.A.Opera Chorus and vocal soloists did sterling work in making the listener aware of the cauldron of seething emotion that makes the closing Acts such compelling listening. Very much earlier in the piece, it was much to the credit of the choristers that they made the frankly tedious declamations that the composer gave to them sound better than they in fact are in operatic terms. Indeed, most of the choral work in Act I supports the argument, often put forward, that Saint Saens’ biblical epic might have had greater acceptance as an oratorio than as an opera.
But there are most certainly moments that make for the grandest of grand operatic effects. This is most powerfully the case with Delilah, towards the close of the work, relishing her moment of triumph after cutting Samson’s locks, with the High Priest (Bruce Martin) gloating over the muscle man’s downfall, only to have their comeuppance in the ruins of the temple.
For many an older member of the audience, this may well recall the closing moments of Cecil B. de Mille’s 1950’s movie epic starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the film’s eponymous roles.
Smaller roles were taken by David Dockery (Abimelech) and Robert Hoffmann (Old Hebrew).
Adding to the pleasure of the evening was an unexpected bonus for all during the interval: a white-clad, gracefully gyrating gymnast held aloft by a big, illuminated helium balloon sailing to and fro above the gathered, fascinated throng, the balloon’s track path controlled by ropes gripped by two hefty young fellows on the ground. (The previous night, this delight sailed across PIAF goings-on at Kalgoorlie, with Port Hedland next on the list.)
I cannot readily recall an Opera in the Park presentation that scored so well on so many counts. Presenting Samson and Delilah would have been a calculated risk. That so many attended suggests that it is not necessarily the case that only safe, top-ten operas should be presented at these events. Let’s have more works that are less frequently encountered here. What about Tchaikowsky’s Eugene Onegin, Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore or Smetana’s The Bartered Bride?
Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn