[Met Performance] CID:200050
New production
Samson et Dalila {108} Metropolitan Opera House: 10/17/1964.

(Debuts: Gabriel Bacquier, Robert Goodloe, Georges Prêtre

Metropolitan Opera House
October 17, 1964
New production


Samson..................Jess Thomas
Dalila..................Rita Gorr
High Priest.............Gabriel Bacquier [Debut]
Abimélech...............Justino Díaz
Old Hebrew..............John Macurdy
Philistine..............Gabor Carelli
Philistine..............Robert Goodloe [Debut]
Messenger...............Robert Nagy
Dance...................Edith Jerell

Conductor...............Georges Prêtre [Debut]

Production..............Nathaniel Merrill
Designer................Robert O'Hearn
Choreographer...........Zachary Solov

Samson et Dalila received fifteen performances this season.

Production a gift of the Metropolitan Opera National Council and Francis Goelet

Review of Alan Rich in the New York Herald Tribune

Met's 'Samson et Dalila' --- A Superb Show

Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O'Hearn, the Metropolitan Opera's brilliant director-designer team, have done good work before, but they have always had the composer on their side. They have no such assistance in their new production of Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila," which had its first performance at the Met on Saturday night, and that makes their accomplishment all the more remarkable.

Let's face it: "Samson" is a pretty dreadful excuse for an opera. Saint-Saens' original idea was to cast it as an oratorio, and he was probably right. Nothing in it has anything remotely mistakable for operatic movement. Very little of the music has enough backbone to sound like even second-hand melody; the music of Dalila's arias comes closest, but that is really not very close. The attempts at serious, atmospheric musical projection are close to laughable, especially at ludicrous canonic duet between Dalila and the High Priest in the last act: a C-minus exercise in Freshman Counterpoint.

What keeps "Samson" on the stage at all is the rudimentary effectiveness of some of its writing for the two central characters. That much can be said for even worse operas (yes, there are some). Great singing cannot redeem the musical values of the work, but they can at least distract one pleasantly. The singing on Saturday night was superb, but we'll get to that later.

Back to Mr. Merrill and Mr. O'Hearn. They have given the opera a visual appearance that is exactly right. Mr. O'Hearn's sets achieve the remarkable feat of encompassing both the music and the story. Unlike his massive, realistic sets for "Aida" and "Die Meistersinger," these are somewhat stylized; paint looks like paint, and trees look like twisted golden ropes. There is a strong feeling of "art nuveau" at times; Dalila's first appearance at the gates of the temple, with splotchy, gold and purple hangings on either side, might almost be a Mucha poster come to life. Sarah Bernhardt would be at home in this setting.

The final collapse of the temple is magnificent; you don't believe for a moment that any of those chunks of masonry weighs more than an ounce, but you find yourself ducking, anyway. The Biblical grandeur is all there, but it is all translated, perfectly and brilliantly, into the period of Saint-Saens. For my money, Mr. O'Hearn has done the job better than the composer himself.

Mr. Merrill had an even tougher job on his hands, trying to impart some sense to all this. He, too, has succeeded marvelously. His [first] tableau, a group of choristers frozen for a moment into a bas-relief, is an old trick used in an exciting new way. The stage picture he creates in the final scene around the Bacchanal has more depth than the music merits by far. There is one strange miscalculation, though; the seduction scene in Act Two appears to be played backward. Samson and Dalila begin in a sort of clinch, but by the end of "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" they are on opposite sides of the bed making love to the Family Circle.

Musically, the performance could hardly be better. Georges Prêtre, making his debut at the Met, shapes and paces a reading of the score that is everywhere fluent and alive. He has worked hard to make sense out of the composer's rather blatant scoring; even the Bacchanal is played as music. The orchestra played for him as for a man worthy of respect, and that was as it should be. He is a major addition to the company, and let's hope they use him as though they realize it.

Oh yes, about the Bacchanal. It has choreography by Zachary Solov, and looks at least as good as the music sounds. Walter Terry, our ballet critic, will have more to say about several recent opera ballets in tomorrow's paper.

Rita Gorr may not be the feast on the eyes that Dalila presumably was, but she makes up for it with a magnificent, high-tension vocal job. Any woman who can put that much - well, let's call it allure-into her voice can look like Mamie Mullins and still bring Dalila to life. Miss Gorr looks better than that, and she has the good sense to confine her stage actions to merely walking from place to place. She is, therefore, a stunning Dalila.

Given the pallid shapelessness of most of Samson's music, Jess Thomas handles himself equally well. Some of Mr. Thomas' French sounded the first time around like a fringe dialect from the Tower of Babel, but he, at least, knows the accents of the musical style. As Samsons go he is a rather youthful-looking specimen, and this is all to the good. Gabriel Bacquier, a new acquisition, was splendid as the High Priest and John Macurdy sang the few lines of the Old Hebrew with powerful resonance.

Music aside, therefore, the new "Samson" is a superb show. It restores to the Met something badly needed there, French opera done with French style. For that, if for no other reason; it is welcome. See it by all means and don't dare leave before the final curtain. It brings down the house.

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