Patrick Kinmonth has read a lot before he started to work on his production of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila for the Deutsche Oper: Freud, Hobsbawm, probably Marie-Claire. He explains his concept with unusual clarity in the performance booklet – and you’d better read it – because I am not sure if he really read Ferdinand Lemaire’s libretto. I am not denying the validity of Kinmonth’s ideas, but I don’t know if he understood that the point on which all these ideas should hang is, after all, the libretto. For example, trains. Even if relating the work to the historical circumstances of its creation is far from being the most original idea in the world, ok, Franco-Prussian war/industrialization/clash-of-values/moral decadence are well represented by the idea of trains for progress that become trains for death. But Samson et Dalila cannot be about trains. When you delete the difference between Philistine and Hebrew and replace by… by nothing, the whole structure of of the story is thorn asunder as the pillars of the temple that never was shown on stage this evening. For example, here Dalila is a long-time mistress of Samson, who lives… in a train. But his illicit relationship (which brought him a son) does not represent a moral problem for him at this point. Then there are soldiers in conflict with a group of people, who look and act basically just like them. A civil war maybe. Then the oppressed people offer a dinner party on the train tracks. Dalila is on the guest lists – she is one of them (don’t ask me!) – and sings about spring. In act II, she is all in virginal white with an umbrella and her son on a cart by the… train tracks. Dalila tells one officer in an uniform (the high-priest) that she wants revenge against her father’s son and not his money. But you’ll never know why – because Dalila is of secondary importance in this story. Let’s say she is upset because he doesn’t know his “secret”. Samson arrives. Dalila steps up the prompter box and sings for the audience, while Samson wanders around everywhere in the stage but near her. Then, out of this placidity, things escalate in two seconds and Dalila says he’d better go somewhere else for fun that evening. But Samson freaks out, strangles her until she is unconscious and rapes her. But then the “oppressed” people show out of nowhere and witness the misdeed. He is embarrassed, she slaps her son’s face. You’ll have probably noticed that the secret everybody speaks about is not mentioned… but, whatever, he does not have any superpower here anyway… Act III shows Samson upset. He paints a clown face on his son – and the sons paints the father’s face too. The Bacchanale is their background music*. Then there is a huge party where basically people tease Samson, who has a clown-face and a martini. Although he is supposed to be made fun of because… he raped Dalila?… people are just finding it mildly funny. Some girls even press her breasts against… the rapist. At this point, you don’t know who are the guests – common sense tells you they cannot be the “oppressed” people. They begin to undress and mysterious trains appear. OK, so the not-“oppressed” people are going to concentration camps? What happen to Franco-Prussian War? Are we already in WWII? And when exactly was WWI? I didn’t join the massive booing for a matter of principle, but I have to ask: does Mr. Kinmonth REALLY believes that this production was ready to be shown to an audience?! OK, the man has “a concept”, but someone should have told him that this is not enough: you have to make it work. This is in the job description.
There seems to be a strange pattern involving iffy new productions and dull conducting in the Deutsche Oper. Maybe Alain Altinoglu had to deal with less than powerful singers and had to scale down his orchestra, but that does not explain the poor synchrony in act I, followed by unclear phrasing throughout. The closing scene to act II did have forward movement; yet it was hardly exciting – and the ballet music sounded as if the conductor were ashamed for its kitsch**. As far as I understand, this is Vesselina Kasarova’s first Dalila, and it seems only half of it made into the performance: mid-range upwards, where the voice sounded fruity, warm and large enough for this music. The other half barely pierced through, so I cannot speak much about it. Her attack brings about a strange distortion of vowels. As a result, her French is only intermittently understandable. Although I believe she might still develop into the role, the unfocused inaudible low notes must be dealt with if she still wants to sing it. Endrik Wottrich, on the other hand, has excellent diction and good French pronunciation (I know French people never believe that any foreigner but Nicolai Gedda and Felicity Lott have it, but Wottrich’s is very convincing for a non-native speaker such as I am). His tenor is hard-edged and muscular and one feels a bit apprehensive about his making to the end, what he did barred one or two cracks. Maybe this is not a good role for him – he sounds like someone singing above his Fach, but it seems he traded his voice’s natural roundness for a cutting-edge. Therefore, more lyric roles might be problematic too these days. If someone here is miscast, this is Laurent Naouri. As the High-Priest, he sounds hooty, throaty and effortful. Although he is French, the voice is so weirdly placed and vowels so indistinct that you cannot really hear his idiomatic pronunciation. To be honest, Ante Jerkunica’s Old Hebrew was the best performance in the evening. I was glad when he received loud and warm applause this evening. He certainly deserved it.
* and ** – Kinmonth explains that Saint-Saëns never takes sides in his scores and that Philistines and Hebrews receive equally sophisticated music. However, the Hebrews’ gathering is depicted by a choral fugue, while the Philistines get the Bacchanale. The fact that the director did not stage the ballet music, which sounds so unlike the rest of the score, probably explains why he believes that.