One of the many things to admire about Arcola’s Grimeborn season is the multinational nature of many of the operas. In this production of Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah at the Arcola Theatre in the heart of Hackney we have a French opera with a Turkish director, a Portuguese Samson, and a French Delilah. But I should add that these nationality labels are increasingly irrelevant since young opera performers are used to working in a range of languages and travelling widely to seize opportunities to sing and play. It is also worth congratulating Arcola for attracting a more diverse audience than one sees at Covent Garden.
Saint-Saens could not find a French opera house to perform his biblical opera so, thanks to his admirer Liszt, it was first performed in Weimar in 1877. It is based on a bloodthirsty Old Testament story about Samson, the hero of the Israelites. He leads a revolt against the Philistines who have enslaved them. He is turned aside from his purpose by the beautiful Delilah who has agreed, in return for a financial reward, to seduce Samson and discover the secret of his god-given superhuman strength. Samson succumbs and she betrays him. He is led, shaved and blinded, into the temple of Dagon where he prays for forgiveness from his god. His strength is miraculously restored and he pulls down the temple causing his own death and the death of his Philistine enemies.
Director Aylin Bozok removes the performers from any semblance of a ‘real’ world and locates them in a symbolic landscape almost entirely conjured up by lighting effects and choreographed movement. A silent figure – disconcertingly equipped with goggles that look like they come from a Mad Max movie – shadows all the key scenes. His role is always shifting but he offers a god-like figure to whom Samson and the priests confess their doubts. The well-drilled chorus also moves from role to role, providing some beautiful singing and an unsettling backdrop to some of the key moments of the performance.
This constantly shifting setting and the absence of some of the key symbols of the story – like Samson’s long hair and the pillars of the temple – does make the action difficult to follow at times. But the emotional impact of the opera is still intense largely because of the power of the two central performances. French singer Marianne Vidal is superb as Delilah with a powerful soprano voice and the dramatic strength to convey both the sexy side of Delilah’s persona and the doubts she feels as a tool of the Philistine priests. Tenor Leonel Pinheiro as Samson – even without the long locks – conveys the tormenting dilemma of a character torn between his duty to his tribe and his fatal attraction to Delilah. The singing isn’t flawless – but it is always full of emotional impact – and rises to the heights on occasion.
This is a dramatic opera that rewards those willing to accept the lush and complex sound world of Saint-Saens. This production is full of big ideas and, though it is not wholly successful, it has real merits that give it a rightful place in the list of Grimeborn successes.