The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Samson et Dalila

I finally saw Samson et Dalila at the Met on Thursday. I got the tickets on a whim on Tuesday, and spent the next couple says listening to a recording repeatedly to get to know the work. It turned out to be a good whim.

I saw a great quote about Saint-Saens in a Gramophone Magazine review: "his genius was literally superficial, in the sense that it was for the surface of things—for the fine cut of a melody, the thin but firm texture of good orchestration." Samson exemplifies Saint-Saens' talent for melody and texture. He might not have been a genius of Brahms' stature, but he was an exceedingly skilled composer.

Seeing this performance made me rue my failure to see this opera when Domingo did it while I was in college. I had intended to go, but never did. Jon Frederic West sang it on Thursday, and he was frankly rather disappointing, especially after hearing Domingo soar on the recording I had listened to over the past couple days. West barked and wobbled his way through the role. The barking style might work all right when he does Siegfried, but in French music this style is death. Olga Borodina, however, was terrific, infinitely better than the horrendous Obraztsova on the Barenboim recording. The latter performance must be the worst performance in a title role on a major studio recording that I have ever heard, outside recordings conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who had very idiosyncratic tastes (Hofmann's Parsifal, for instance, is even worse. He single-handedly wrecks an otherwise transcendant recording.). It is simply baffling that this was allowed to happen, as Barenboim does not generally seem to share Karajan's idiosyncracies or imperiousness.

Anyway, back to the opera. Many have noted the parallels between the thrilling Bacchanale in Samson and the Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome. I thought the parallels don't end there; the entire atmosphere of that last scene is darkly ironic in a way similar to all of Salome. About twenty years before Salome, Saint-Saens composed a climactic scene novel in that it's exuberance is one that celebrates evil, and this effect is well-reflected in the orchestral coloring and aggressive, even brutal melodies. Salome, of course, is more deeply ironic, as even the hero, John the Baptist, is being mocked by Wilde and Strauss. The entire scene is absurd. But an element of that is seen first in Samson, as the Philistine's decadence is not meant to be taken at face value, but thinly covers a darker menace.

Speaking of Salome, if you missed Mattila's performance two years ago at the Met, I can't think of a better reason to invent a time machine. It was flat out the most stupendous operatic performance I have ever seen. It left me breathless. The precision, the power, the control, the tone! Hopefully, she'll be back to do it again. I look forward to seeing her as Leonore at the end of the month.


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