Sam revisited Samson et Dalila in Cologne:
SAINT SAËNS - SAMSON ET DALILA
13 MAY 2009
I couldn't resist returning for a second visit to the Cologne Opera's scandal-ridden new production of Samson et Dalila, on Wednesday night (13 May), even though I knew full well, like Samson himself, that yielding to such temptation could prove catastrophic. In my report on the premiere, I rehearsed the series of issues that led to two singers portraying Dalila. Net-net: last-minute substitute Ursula Hesse van den Steinen contracted a throat ailment, so she ended up miming the role, while Irena Mishura (who has portrayed the role at the Met) was flown in from Geneva to deliver Dalila from a bridge over the orchestra pit.
At the second performance, Ursula Hesse van den Steinen (is there a marquee anywhere wide enough for this name?) was supposed to mime and sing Dalila, but an announcement from the stage informed us, that she had not yet sufficiently recovered, so Ms. Mishura again did voice-over duty from stage-left. While I couldn't help looking over at the singing Dalila at the premiere, a big-haired woman blocked my view this time around, forcing me to keep my eyes on stage-center.
Several widely circulated opinions about the premiere expressed bewilderment at all the noise surrounding Tilman Knabe's violence-filled production. I fully agree. Truly offensive spectacles are readily available on the tube. What passed nearly unnoticed at the premiere but impressed me most at this performance was the dazzling erotic energy displayed by Ursuala Hesse van den Steinen and the horny High Priest of Eglis Silins in their scene that begins the second act. The heat coming off them as they circled an outsize bed, eyes locked in fervid foreplay: that kind of animal sensuality is found rarely in a live performing framework, much less at the opera. In addition to Ursula's gifts as singer (I've heard her before), -- her dime store negligee reveals a stacked body. Correspondingly, Eglis Silins moves his tall, slender and paunchless frame to and fro with gainly amble. So why, apart from unzipping his fly, does Knabe make him keep his clothes on?
The question is salient, because Ray M. Wade, Jr. as Samson does remove his trousers in the ensuing seduction scene, unfurling a mega-monumental midriff and thundering thighs that herald nothing short of a tsunami. This is a directorial decision that is far more shocking than any truly gross exhibition of violence that Knabe could have concocted. What is the frigging point? Is this well-nigh obscene spectacle of obesity a perverse hommage to Shirley Stoler in Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties? Is Knabe issuing a declaration of himself a chubby chaser? What is clear is that this scene is embarrassing, most specifically for Mr. Wade. This, at the very moment of his hard-won triumph in one of the most demanding roles in the Tenor Fach.
By the way, the singing was uniformly top drawer, and Enrico Delamboye's conducting compared favorably once more to vintage Gewurztraminer -- intense and piquant.
I'm still looking forward to experiencing Ursula multi-task. Meanwhile, I implore Knabe to let Ray keep his pants on.
© Sam H. Shirakawa