By Lawrence Budmen 

In the tradition of French grand opera, Samson et spectacle writ large. Camille Saint-Saens’s Biblical epic mixes voluptuous lyrical music, colorful ballet and crowd scenes, and vivid characters to produce a larger than life event. If Cecil B. DeMille had ever written an opera, this is what it would be like. (In more ways than one, the prolific Saint-Saens was ahead of his time. He was the first major composer to write for the cinema.) Saint-Saens was also a master craftsman. His brilliant contrapuntal writing for chorus and orchestra is on full display in Samson et Dalila, always conceived in stark musico-dramatic terms. 

Florida Grand Opera’s production of Samson et Dalila (seen on April 18 at the Carnival Center) succeeds in delivering an eye filling extravaganza with impressive voices to boot. Although much of Saint-Saens’s score is crafted like an oratorio (which was the composer’s original intention), director Sandra Bernhard manages to create intense drama and vivid stage images. Her sense of pacing and theatrical fluidity was unerring. 

Douglas W. Schmidt’s eye catching sets and Carrie Robbins’s multi-hued costumes filled the stage with color and pageantry. Rosa Mercedes’s choreography for the climactic Bacchanale was kitschy but hugely entertaining. This production (a collaboration of San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago) vividly captured Saint-Saens’s large scale vision in operatic Cinemascope. The blinded Samson’s final destruction of the temple provides a spectacular curtain.

The production’s only weak element came from the orchestra pit. Too often the Florida Classical Orchestra sounded ragged and imprecise. Poor intonation in the winds seriously compromised the composer’s stunning orchestral writing. Stewart Robertson’s conducting lacked fire and fluidity. Music that should ignite tended to merely simmer at a low temperature. By contrast Douglas Kinney Frost’s chorus was splendid – vociferous, musically subtle, alert to the colors and elegance of the score.

Tenor Jon Villars was an excellent Samson – strong of voice, virile in declamatory perorations. Denyce Graves’s creamy mezzo-soprano mesmerized the house as Dalila, the seductress of Samson’s undoing. While the role is somewhat low for her warm, lyrical instrument, Graves brought true French élan to her every utterance. She made Saint-Saens’s sumptuous arias soar - star turn in the best sense of the term. With her charisma, beauty, and opulent voice, Graves offered 24 carrot operatic gold. 

As the villainous High Priest of Dagon, Jason Stearns unfurled a powerful, voluminous bass-baritone. Theatrically he was a suave embodiment of evil. Brian Jauhiainen revealed a well focused bass voice in his brief opportunity as Abimelech. Stefan Szkafarowsky, a basso of darker coloration, was a standout as the Old Hebrew. Szkafarowsky’s deep, black vocal coloration recalled such celebrated Slavic artists as Boris Christoff, Ivan Petroff, and Mark Reizen. 

Florida Grand Opera’s sumptuous mounting of Samson et Dalila was successful on most counts. But greater attention needs to be payed to the important instrumental component. Superb voices and large scale production values deserve first rate orchestral support.

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