RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dalila (Malgorzata Walewska) continues her temptation of Samson (Mark Lundberg) during dress rehearsal at Blaisdell Concert Hall.
‘Samson & Dalila’ lacking in strength
Samson's passionate fury and Dalila's bewitching talents opened the Hawaii Opera Season on Friday, attracting both opera lovers and curious spectators.
The large orchestra and the inventive score of Camille Saint-Saëns' "Samson & Dalila" (1876) spark interest in the work. And because the opera is not performed that often, the evening was even more intriguing.
'Samson and Dalila'
Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre
On stage: 7:30 p.m. today and Tuesday
Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets $29 to $120
In this tale of seduction, love, betrayal, patriotism and rage, Chapter 16 of the "Book of Judges" comes to life with enough exoticism to make everybody excited. Furthermore, powerful tenor Mark Lundberg as Samson and accomplished mezzo-soprano Malgorzata Walewska as Dalila satisfied all the requirements for a high-quality performance.
But while all the elements of an excellent evening seemed in place, the overall production was short of the required stage action. Especially static was the interminable first act, where the large chorus of Hebrews gathers to praise and implore Jehovah to free them from the Philistines. The scene introduces the whole purpose of the story, but without a strong impact, we had a hard time sympathizing with any character or predicament. Even the complexity and power of Saint-Saëns' score did not help.
Lundberg's voice, luckily, carried the authority of the persona, and his clear diction conveyed a sense of focus. The steady color of his voice exuded control, and his experience with German Romantic opera contributed to make his performance an extremely serious one, as it should be. But his acting was too controlled and his gestures only partially satisfied the minimum dramatic requirements. The complexity of the character -- a physically strong and charismatic leader weakened by love and betrayal -- could have moved us more.
Samson's "Vois ma misère, helas," sung after being blinded, is one of the most moving arias of French opera and one that expresses the greatest humanity a character can deliver onstage. Lundberg had the expressive qualities in his voice, but his scenic presence amid the large group of Philistines was less engaging. Maybe director William Florescu could have helped the scene with less confusion and more focus on the weakened character.
Samson's counterpart, Dalila, suffered the same dramatic injustice. Walewska proved a great Dalila with a superb dark and strong mezzo-soprano voice, but she was not fully exploited on a theatrical level. She delivered her chest tones and higher notes with ease and confidence, but her acts of seduction were too contained -- elegant, but paintinglike rather than dramatic. But in the second act's duet "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix," in which Dalila seduces Samson, she created a unique atmosphere of sophisticated sensuality that perfectly matched Lundberg's contained eagerness.
Saint-Saëns' score provides Wagnerian ambiguity, Italian operatic conventions and tender French melodies. After briefly overshadowing the singers in the first act, the orchestra under Mark Flint's baton elegantly performed the eclectic music. The "Bacchanale" in Act 3 has plenty of exotic sounds, a mixture of Arabic-like scales, snaps of Spanish castanets, intriguing rhythms and plenty of instrumental interjections by the woodwinds, instruments considered "mysterious" in 1870s France. The dancers were energetic, and Patrick Corbin's choreography intrigued the audience with its mixing steps "à la Africaine" and "Oriental" hand gestures, as French critics would probably have said in those days.
Helen Rodgers' costumes added a colorful touch to the otherwise unexciting stage set. The chorus was strong and clear, except for occasional shrills on the sopranos' side. Finally, most of the cast balanced the challenging production, and especially brilliant was the High Priest Lawrence Harris. The audience was enthusiastic, and the production was close to brilliant. Some improvements could have fixed the few weaknesses.
Valeria Wenderoth has a doctorate in musicology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she also teaches.