Making Grand Opera Great Again: ‘Samson et Dalila’ and ‘Aida’ at the Met

The Act III Bacchanal from ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Gaudy and Campy: The New ‘Normal’

Before we continue with my review of Wagner’s Ring cycle, let’s take a break from the action and revisit some old favorites. The Metropolitan Opera, in its infinite wisdom (tongue planted tactfully in cheek), opened its 2018-2019 season with a new production of a tired, old potboiler: that over-cooked kettle of operatic stew by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila (or “Samson and Delilah” for those not in the know).

Talk about old hat, this lavish effort was once a popular item, and not only at the Met but in Europe and throughout North and South America. The main requirements for telling this age-old Biblical story from the Book of Judges are simple: a strong-voiced, beefy-built heroic tenor; a sumptuous and alluring mezzo or contralto; and a malevolent-sounding bass-baritone. Given these ingredients, any opera house worth its weight in décor can put-over this stirring piece. Or can it?

The key, though, can be found in those same title roles. In olden times, tenors who could do justice to the mighty Samson were ripe for the picking: worthy contributions from the likes of Enrico Caruso, Leo Slezak, Fernand Ansseau, Georges Thill, José Luccioni, René Maison, Ramón Vinay, José Soler, Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers, Richard Tucker, James McCracken, Guy Chauvet, Plácido Domingo, and José Cura could be counted on to (quite literally) bring down the house.

On the opposite end, such sultry sirens as Louise Homer, Margarete Matzenauer, Risë Stevens, Gladys Swarthout, Blanche Thebom, Ebe Stignani, Regina Resnik, Giulietta Simionato, Rita Gorr, Mignon Dunn, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Christa Ludwig, Elena Obraztsova, Fiorenza Cossotto, Agnes Baltsa, Olga Borodina, and Denyce Graves lent class and stature to Dalila, and (at one time) were a dime a dozen but just as thrilling.

Opening night of September 24, 2018 for Samson starred tenor Roberto Alagna and mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča. These two hearty souls have sung together often, most excitingly as Don José and Carmen in Richard Eyre’s Franco-era production of Bizet’s masterpiece. On the Saturday broadcast of March 23, 2019, however, listeners had to settle for a substitute Samson, tenor Gregory Kunde, a former bel canto specialist, and the lush Dalila of Georgian-born Anita Rachvelishvili. The previously announced Aleksandrs Antonenko was nowhere to be heard.

Former bel canto specialist turned heroic tenor Gregory Kunde as the strongman Samson in Saint-Saens’ ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

We did get to hear Antonenko on the May 4, 2019 transmission of Verdi’s grand opera Aida, which marked the house’s role debut of Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the titular Ethiopian princess, along with Anita Rachvelishvili’s bone chilling Amneris, baritone Quinn Kelsey’s capable Amonasro, and bass Dmitriy Belosselskiy’s High Priest Ramfis. This was a pre-recorded broadcast taken from the performance of October 6, 2018. So where did Antonenko go? To paraphrase from Ole Blue Eyes, the Latvian tenor did not have a very good year. We’ll get to the specifics later on, once we get to reviewing that Aida broadcast.

For now, I hope readers don’t’ mind if we dig into the artifice of Samson et Dalila. Once a massive hit, Saint-Saëns’ oratorio-cum-stodgy religious epic needs first-rate singing actors to convince viewers that: one, the Hebrew strongman could be duped into revealing the secret of his strength to his enemies; and two, we can feel some kind of kinship (albeit fleetingly) to his villainous seducer. On records, these matters manifest themselves both vocally and sonically. On the stage, the visual aspects take precedent, but with the requisite tonal contribution. Was the Met’s cast effective in conveying these facets to radio listeners such as myself? Hmm…

Samson (Gregory Kunde) is about to get a haircut from Dalila (Anita Rachvelishvili) in Act II of ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

It goes without saying that the big draw here was Rachvelishvili’s warbling of Dalila. Or should I say outpourings? Yes, the fiery Georgian mezzo can deliver the aural splendors of Dalila’s three marvelous airs with amplitude and high-voltage capacity. Anita is young and vibrant, and made quite a mark for herself early on as the fiery gypsy girl Carmen. Since then, she’s gone on to triumph as the Princess de Bouillon in the revival (also, a new production) of Francesco Cilèa’s verismo warhorse Adriana Lecouvreur, with Ms. Netrebko on the receiving end of their rivalry (see my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2019/04/28/operatic-hodgepodge-the-met-opera-presents-adriana-lecouvreur-pelleas-carmen-iolanta-and-bluebeards-castl/). The result? Expectations were running high for something out of the ordinary.

Today, honest to goodness Samson and Dalila voices are difficult to come by. There are still some qualified candidates out there, among them native Virginian Carl Tanner, who appeared in an April 2018 concert performance of Samson with North Carolina Opera. Tanner was also “first cover” artist at the Met last season but come broadcast time we were given Kunde.

From the sound of things, Kunde managed the part well enough. He hit all the right notes (albeit with a pronounced beat), even if his middle voice turned hollow and his phrasing rather bland. He managed to express the fallen hero’s anguish at betraying his people in the Act III scene where Samson is tied to a millstone. As far as his having a heroic timbre, the higher up Kunde went the wirier he sounded — at least on the radio, not the best source for acoustics. Overall, an acceptable replacement.

What was missing from Kunde’s assumption was that inner fire, that spark, that flame that illumines the best Samson performers. Of course, I’m thinking of Canadian Jon Vickers in his prime. Granted that no modern-day interpreter, either on or off the record, could match what Vickers’ galvanic presence brought, both physically and vocally, to the part. His was the Samson voice I hold most dear in my mind’s eye whenever such lines as “Arrêtez, ô mes frères!” or “Dalila, je t’aime!” are uttered. It was not only the sheer size of the Vickers sound that never failed to impress, but his total immersion in the character’s plight.

The late Canadian tenor Jon Vickers as the mighty Samson

Oh, I know, I know. I’m not being fair to the other candidates (Domingo and Cura, for one, and José Carreras and Alagna for another) whose vocal resources were nowhere near the late tenor’s class. Still, one can’t help being guided by his model — and what a model it was.

To give the 65-year-old Kunde his due, he partnered well with Rachvelishvili’s Dalila. Yet even her contributions left me cold emotionally, although she too poured out tones of molten lava. Their extensive Act II duet where Rachvelishvili seduces Samson into mush (“Shall I take a little off the top, Sammy boy?”) proved enthralling. Anita spun out her long phrases (via her entrance song, “Je viens célébrer la victoire” – “I came to celebrate your victory,” and the accompanying “Printemps qui commence” – “Springtime begins”) with passion and meaning and plenty of subtle, persuasive feeling. Certainly, her big number, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart at your voice”), mixed charm and tenderness with overarching purpose.

Rachvelishvili’s second act scena with the wobbly High Priest of French-born bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, whom I praised for his campy portrayal of Cendrillon’s father in the Met’s premier production of Massenet’s opera about Cinderella (see my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/07/15/massenets-cendrillon-a-fairy-tale-wish-comes-true-at-the-met/), missed the mark entirely. True, this duet is far from the composer’s best material.

Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila in Act II of ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Personally, I find the episode tiresome, to the extent their plotting tends to bog down the action. Still, in the right hands it can stir the blood. How well I remember a 2013 Richard Tucker Gala concert performance of this duet, with the glorious chest tones of the renowned Stephanie Blythe partnered by Greer Grimsley’s roaring thunder as Dalila and High Priest, respectively. Now THERE was a formidable exchange!

Thankfully, the secondary roles were expertly handled by two newcomers to the Met’s roster. Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, who triumphed as Alberich in the Ring cycle works, created an acid-tongued Abimélech, delivered in patented tongue-lashing manner. His voice poured forth with the same venom as earlier, only in insinuatingly enunciated French — solid work all around. Similarly, the golden-throated German basso Günther Groissböck regaled audiences with his warmly vocalized Old Hebrew. He easily hit the lowest note in the trio that closes Act I, and both artists received rousing ovations at the end.

Regarding conductor Sir Mark Elder’s elephantine pacing, the less said the better. However, kudos to the Met Orchestra and especially to the excellent Met Chorus for their contributions to the final scenario. Director Darko Trenjak’s production (a spinoff of Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics), with sets by Alexander Dodge and costumes by Linda Cho, held up the kitschy end of things as befit a gaudy and campy outing.

Mind you, I’m not out to destroy the fun, I’m just being honest. The virtues of Samson et Dalila are plenty, and include a memorable and stunningly melodious first act, followed by a rapturous and heady close from the middle of Act II onward (excluding that laborious twosome for Dalila and the High Priest) and into that pitiable scene with Samson and the millstone. The opera ends with an all-out, anything-goes Bacchanal, to wildly cliched music of the bump-and-grind variety that, if nothing else, tends to give grand opera a bad name.

The Verdian Take on the Grand

It’s a shame that Meyerbeer, the fellow most responsible for turning grand opera into an extravagant, out of proportion, bloated and cumbersome display piece, is given the blame for its undeserved demise. Truth be told, his path-breaking ventures at the Paris Opéra paved the way (and the impetus) for such Verdi masterworks as I Vespri Siciliani (known also by its French title as Les Vêpres Siciliennes), La Forza del Destino, and especially Don Carlos — all operas that predated Aida.

When Aida made its 1871 premiere in Cairo, most audiences, including the majority of critics and reviewers, felt that Verdi had reached the absolute summit of lyric drama. Given in four acts, Aida was based on a story by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette Bey. The story was adapted by poet Antonio Ghislanzoni into a libretto, with additional input from Verdi himself. That grandiose vision we know as Aida, then, fulfilled every expectation of the grandiose in opera: sweeping historical pageantry, public duty versus private agony, compelling and impressive characterizations by a large cast, outsized emotions, elaborate sets and costumes, ballet sequences, and massive choral episodes.

Radames (Aleksandrs Antonenko) professes his love for Aida (Anna Netrebko) in Act III of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (Photo: Met Opera)

How times have changed! After several decades or more of revisionist theory, lovers of Verdi’s music have come to the conclusion that Aida, which made up a major portion of the standard repertory (it was the “A” of those A-B-C productions, followed closely by La Bohème and Carmen), has been replaced by the letter “D” for Don Carlos. There is much to believe in this conceit, with part of the problem being that singers who can take on the vocal challenges of Aida and Amneris, Amonasro and Ramfis, and, most distressingly of all, the lead tenor role of Radames, have become a vanishing breed.

Sadly, I am not the only writer who has observed (and been influenced by) this growing trend. Listeners once searched in vain for tenors who could tackle the parts of Otello, Tristan, and Siegfried. Today, such artists exist (we’ll meet some of them when I pick up the thread of Wagner’s Ring). On the other hand, how many successful Radames have you heard lately? Is there anybody out there who can convince you of his intentions? With the ageless Plácido having taken on nothing but baritone parts, who is left to give voice to our Egyptian general?

In our day, one could count on the efforts of Messrs. Del Monaco, Corelli, Mario Filippeschi, Tucker, Bergonzi, Vickers, McCracken, Richard Cassilly, Domingo, Carreras, Alagna, and others to do their duty or bust. Where is that voice today? Certainly not with Aleksandrs Antonenko.

The Aida broadcast mentioned above had its moments in the Egyptian sun. This was to be the last gasp of the Sonja Frisell-Gianni Quaranta production before a planned new version is given sometime in the near future. Let’s hope the Met hires the right people for their venture. To be honest, some of them were already present and accounted for in the May 4, 2019 radio transmission: Netrebko, Rachvelishvili, Kelsey, Belosselskiy, bass Ryan Speedo Green, soprano Gabriella Reyes as the Priestess, and tenor Arseny Yakovlev as an especially arresting Messenger. All of them held together by the baton of Nicola Luisotti.

Aida (Anna Netrebko) pleads for mercy to Amneris (Anita Rachvelishvili) at the Met’s performance of Verdi’s  ‘Aida’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s magical presence graced this role with startling accuracy and delicately filigreed pianissimos. Her artistry is such that little needs to be said about Netrebko’s mushy diction. When she lets out all the stops, there’s no holding her back. Her voice has filled out remarkably well, its sound plush and plummy, with no register breaks and solid craftsmanship up and down the line. She created a flesh-and-blood figure through voice alone, although some felt her generalized acting ability did not match her singing skills. In my experience, few singers could match the nobility and bearing of Leontyne Price, the essence of which is embedded in every Aida performance, whether at the Met or anywhere else.

Rachvelishvili was right behind, or ahead of the game if that sort of thing matters to listeners. The two divas duked it out vocally and, I must say, judiciously, much as they had done in the aforementioned Adriana Lecouvreur. Here, though, I felt their individual voices blended a whole lot better in conformity to Verdi’s demands. In another example, Amneris’ fabulous Judgment Scene was overpowering in its dimensions, the brass blaring out impressively as the priests delivered their verdict over Radames’ fate: he’s to be entombed alive in the crypt for divulging military secrets to the enemy.

Kelsey’s stirring Amonasro, the recipient of those military secrets, was also on fire vocally and histrionically. A brief but telling assignment (the Ethiopian king appears midway in Act II and has a duet and trio in Act III), Kelsey’s voice rang out firmly and cleanly. He always reminds me of Italian baritone Rolando Panerai, whose clear and precise enunciation was a joy to listen to as well.

Amonasro (Quinn Kelsey) makes his demands on daughter Aida (Anna Netrebko) in the Nile Scene from Act III (Photo: Met Opera)

Ryan Speedo Green’s bottomless King of Egypt (historically, he should have been called Pharaoh) was a pleasurable asset as always, as was Belosselskiy’s Ramfis. How I miss the voice-of-doom quality an artist such as Boris Christoff could bring to the role, or the rock-solid authority of an Ezio Pinza or a Cesare Siepi. Nevertheless, everyone acquitted themselves commendably — everyone, that is, except Antonenko.

Good for What Ails You

Considering that he was replaced, after Act I, in Samson et Dalila (but not the radio broadcast, which he missed entirely), Antonenko has been experiencing vocal problems of his own for several seasons now. Pitch-shy, labored, mealy-voiced, and squalling, his wobbly, unromantic rendition of “Celeste Aida,” Verdi’s opening torture test for tenor, was abominable (Opera News reported that he was “in ghastly voice”). He was incapable of sustaining a soft note, in particular that infamous B flat that concludes the air. Verdi had marked the note to be taken “pianissimo.” Good luck with that! Antonenko bawled it out of the ballpark, and none too steadily either.

Shouting is not singing, people, as I have pointed out on previous occasions. The only explanation one can have for this disaster is that Antonenko is in dire vocal distress. Don’t get me wrong. I like Antonenko’s way with the score, and he has a large, serviceable voice. He is excellent in Russian opera, especially as the Pretender Dimitri in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He’s a relatively young man (still only 43), with time enough to develop and progress in the direction he wishes to take his talents.

If that direction is the lirico spinto repertoire, then he needs to take better care of his instrument. Take a season or two off, Aleks, and go see a good voice doctor; learn fewer demanding roles or re-learn old ones. Give yourself a break. Try to develop a technique for getting around those tough assignments. Whatever you need to do to get your act together, by all means do it now. We want to see you back in action, pronto!

It’s worth comparing Antonenko to Vickers, who, in my honest opinion, gave one of the most stupendous and moving accounts of Radames on record. Vickers, along with colleagues Jussi Bjoerling and Carlo Bergonzi, set the standard for how the role should be interpreted. Scene after scene, including the entirety of Acts III and IV, are lovingly expressed in that inimitable Vickers style (before he became embarrassingly mannered toward the end).

Opera on Record: Volume One noted that Vickers was “in his best period as a singer” in the 1961 RCA Victor Aida with the formidable Leontyne Price, “communicating that rare sense of devotion to the music, sometimes imprinting his individuality so that it is hard to hear phrases like ‘Sovra una terra estrania’ in another voice, so beautifully haunting is it, half painfully, half entranced.” Amen to that.

Original album cover of the Grammy Award-winning RCA Victor Red Seal recording of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (1961)

The above observations will not cure what is ailing Aida. For my money, Aida is not some lumbering circus-like spectacle, but an emotional roller-coaster ride. AND I LOVE THIS OPERA TO DEATH! It was one of the first complete opera albums I had as a teenager (an earlier RCA Victor effort with Bjoerling, Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, and Leonard Warren in the leads). It’s a concise political drama with grandiloquent elements that transcend what replaced it, i.e., verismo and so-called “realism.” There is more human drama in this opus than in most verismo works. And it’s been much too maligned of late, no doubt due to the high cost of production: sets, costumes, cast, orchestra, extras, supernumeraries, you name it. That the opera is not as popular today as it has been in the past “may” have something to do with the vocal crisis of past decades. Very true!

More so today than before, it might also have to do with the opera’s specifically racial themes: that of a black African slave having fallen in love with a light-skinned Egyptian warrior (historically inaccurate, if we go by what historians have told us); and the subjugation of a race of people. In an interesting slant, I’ve read about productions that use all-black casts to tell Aida’s story in a postmodern, true-to-our-everyday-reality way.

Similarly, the experience of seeing an all-white cast in Aida, or in the Met’s “politically correct” misrepresentation of Verdi’s Otello as a white general (the very premise of the piece, along with the Shakespeare play on which it was based, demands that the lead character be black), has given potential converts to opera, as well as battle-weary veterans, a sour taste in their mouths. Even those more knowledgeable about opera have been taken aback by such efforts.

Let me remind readers that in many critics’ views, as well as my own, the finest modern interpreter of Aida, Mississippi-born African American soprano Leontyne Price, clearly identified with this part. With pride in her heritage and upon her impending retirement from the Met in 1984, Ms. Price gave an interview to the New York Times wherein she insisted that “I want to go out as the glorious Ethiopian, Aida. She is not a slave at all. She is a captive princess — she is of noble blood.”

Her statement, that Aida “is of noble blood,” means much more today, in our politically charged environment, than it ever did. A note of thanks to the nobility and dignity of Ms. Price, who alone made grand opera great by the majesty of her voice and by her presence and regal bearing.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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