Monday, May 11, 2009

Do Me, Dalila!

Sam Shirakawa is still in Cologne, this time attending the premiere of Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila:
9 MAY 2009

I think it was Mae West who said, "Call me anything, just call me often."

The Cologne Opera has been called a lot of things -- and often -- over the past year. Scandal Number 69: After a variety of problems forced the premiere of its latest new production to be postponed by a week, the curtain finally went up on Camile Saint-Saen's Samson et Dalila before a sell-out crowd this past Saturday evening, 9 May. The time-line of the tempest runs like this (sort of): The originally cast Dalila dropped out about a week before the premiere was set to take place on 2 May, claiming the violent excesses of Tilman Knabe's production were distressing her to the point of indisposition. Her replacement, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (no, the name is NOT taken from The Producers), fell prey to a throat ailment, thereby increasing the suspense -- and the publicity. Meanwhile, a goodly number of chorus members called in sick, because of said production excesses.

Determined to go on with the show nomattawhat, the Cologne Opera management scraped together a quorum of choristers and hastily recruited Irena Mishura from Geneva to sing Dalila from the side of the stage with score in hand, while Ursula Hesse van den Steinen mimed the role.

Did it work? Mostly. In fact, as Mishura vocalized her sultry she-devil with the gratifying confidence of a seasoned courtesan, glancing over at her from time to time over the course of the intermission-less evening became a merciful respite. Here's why:

First of all, Samson et Dalila, apart from two top-o'-the-charts arias, is a third-rate opera by a fifth-rate composer; frequent distractions of almost any sort are a blessing. Second, Knabe's production is not dynamic enough to keep the attention focused on center-stage for the duration. Neither are Beatrix von Pilgrim's sets sufficiently eye-catching to hold undivided attention. Nor do Kathi Maurer's costumes -- including a ticki-tacky seduction outfit for Dalilah -- compel unconditional surrender. Nonetheless, I look forward to attending a future performance, in which Ursula Hesse van den Steinen juggles stage business and singing along with simulated shtupping. (Her Dalila turns two tricks -- the High Priest and Samson -- within a half hour and still comes up like she's humming for more!)The lip-sync compromise would have worked perfectly as a diversion, had it not been for the mesmerizing, nuanced Samson of American and long-time Cologne Opera member Ray M. Wade, Jr. Whenever he opened his mouth, all eyes and ears gravitated to him alone. Whenever I’ve heard him previously, he invariably essayed a large, disciplined, but dynamically invariable spinto tenor that hardly betrayed a trace of the Gallic heroism required by such a hefty role as Samson. Maybe he's been tutored under the care of an expert in la Style Français, or maybe he's just listened closely to recordings left us by the likes of Paul Franz and Emile Scaramberg -- or maybe both. Whatever. Ray purveyed the pay-off of his studies on Saturday night with stentorian passion and muscular grace. He's made a break-through with Samson, and intendants at international houses might do well to pay heed. This production, though, raises a serious issue, that could prevent Ray from attaining the heights he otherwise deserves. That matter I will discuss in discursive terms shortly.

Another worthy distraction took shape in the High Priest of Eglis Silins, whose virile, athletic vocalism matched his colleagues note for note. This lanky Lithuanian bass-baritone has an easy-going sensuality in both his singing and stage demeanor that renders him international star material. Why the stars have yet to align in his favor in a big way remains one of the mysteries of contemporary opera politics.

Nearly forgotten in the midst of all the hoo-ha: the idiomatic and fluidly paced conducting of Enrico Delamboye. He won a huge ovation from the audience at the curtain calls, as well as a round of floor stomping in the orchestra pit.

For all the outrage and external noise the production has aroused, the opening night crowd sat still through the scenes of amok-running on stage and, minus a boo here and there at the curtain calls, gave the production team a big hand. The magazine Das Bild has dubbed the event "brutally good."

Now a couple of thoughts about Tilman Knabe's production. He's updated the period from Biblical antiquity (11th century BC, I believe) to the current age, so muted machine gun fire replaces sabre-clunking. (It's not clear who the Philistine soldiers are supposed to be in this frame of reference.)

No matter.

The operative word in viewing the scenes depicting sex, mass rape and genocide is "simulation." Given the numbing glare of today's real-life prurience and violence on TV news, cable and the Internet, Knabe's simulations of human behavior at its ugliest strike me as anemic. If he knows what it's like to be in the midst of a combat zone, he is obviously at a loss to portray convincing tableaux of it. Much too tame, lieber Knabe! Give us some real violence on stage! Why not, for example, slay the uppity prima donna and rebellious choristers, five or six at each performance, and eviscerate them in full view of the audience? But even that seems old hat, given the plethora of snuff films floating around.

So here is where Knabe and other "artists" paint themselves into a corner, when they try exploiting gratuitous violence in the theater of our times. It's cold coffee. They might succeed in offending a few colleagues, but the shock-inured public is way ahead of them. On Saturday evening, some audience members, far from being outraged, were snickering dismissively. The only viable option left to stage directors who keep pushing the violence envelop is, in my view, to co-opt and advance the animation-driven, blood-drenched universe of certain best-selling video games: Out-grand Grand Theft Auto, by splashing mindless beheadings and such in blown-up detail beyond the limits of the proscenium arch. And go 4-D by dousing the audience with genuine cold blood. Do Next-Level Wannabes like Knabe, though, have the stomach for truly upsetting bourgeois audiences?

All of which is not to say, that Knabe's staging failed in inducing Aristotelian awe, pity and so on. Far from it. I cannot recall a moment throughout years of theatre-going, in which I felt so seized with grim amazement, as when Ray M. Wade, Jr., shucked his trousers to mount Ursula Hesse van den Steinen in the second act seduction scene, baring girth so gargantuan that it mocked Biblical proportions, flashing corpulence so awesome, that I wanted desperately to look away. But couldn't. Was it really socially responsible for Knabe to treat us to the breath-stopping harvest of Ray's evident penchant for massive consumption? Would Knabe have been so needlessly flesh-forward had he been directing Pavarotti?

But now, at least, I suspect I know the real reason why the originally cast Dalilah pulled out: she found the role too heavy.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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