North Carolina Opera's nigh-perfect presentation of Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila in concert made the company's 2017-2018 season an all-hit wonder, a worthy culmination of eight years' work towards such a goal.
Following up on the company's impressive Cold Mountain last fall and its highly satisfying Rigoletto in January, Samson et Dalila in Meymandi Concert Hall was a success because all the elements were again in place: first class voices, splendid chorus, excellent orchestra, and a consummate conductor in full control.
Because Saint-Saëns initially conceived the work as an oratorio but later turned it into an opera, it's always been a hybrid that can be somewhat dissatisfying in either format. As an opera, there's very little dramatic action, but in concert the lack of any action makes the rather uneven scene structure hard to follow. Luckily, the music is so consistently beautiful that it's easy to ignore any quibbles about form, especially when so gloriously sung and played as it was here.
The accolades rightly begin with conductor Timothy Myers, who led the 62-piece onstage orchestra with palpable fervor and sensitivity, vitally propelling the piece over the afternoon. Particularly striking was his ability to highlight delicate passages, such as Dalila's wafting Act I entrance music or the reverent Act I Hebrew hymn of deliverance, without letting the pulse of the piece flag. Myers also made the most of the big orchestral moments, such as the Act II storm music and the riotous Act III celebration in the Temple of Dagon. Myers took that scene's famous Bacchanale at top speed, an exciting rollercoaster ride that the splendid orchestra sailed through handily.
Myers' confidence and precision were all the more amazing because he was conducting West Side Story at Houston Grand Opera in between rehearsals and the performance of Samson. He conducted in Houston on Saturday night and flew to Raleigh on Sunday morning to conduct that afternoon. Talk about faith in the airline industry!
Scott MacLeod's chorus also deserves great credit. Despite being seated behind the orchestra, they could be heard in the quietest moments and easily filled the hall in the booming Act III temple scene. The women were particularly impressive in the shimmering passages accompanying Dalila's Act I entrance.
Samson is an intense role, with many pages of stentorian declamation. Tenor Carl Tanner immediately established his vocal freedom and confidence in Samson's Act I aria, his bright, weighty tone ringing out solidly. He produced thrilling high notes with a breath control that signaled he had no problem holding them as long as required. He also could bring his voice down to softer levels to express the character's self-doubt, and he could change his tone to passionate declaration when being seduced by Dalila. Tanner had not sung the role in a decade, so his continual focus on his score was understandable, although it meant he projected little characterization, which stood out because the rest of his colleagues were in character even with their scores in front of them. Nevertheless, this was a gripping performance from a singer who has the role wholly within his grasp.
Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens made a welcome return to North Carolina Opera as Dalila, having made a fine impression as Fricka in the company's 2016 Das Rheingold. Martens possesses a lovely, warm voice that she can scale down to a near-whisper or fling out huge high notes without ever sounding harsh. She seductively rendered the opera's big number, "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix," and sang out with full force in the Act III temple scene. Martens seemed determined not to interpret the role as the stereotypical aggressor but as a more subtle traitor. However, this put a rather introspective spin on her performance, in which she often sang softly when a louder, firmer tone seemed called for. Again, this was a minor quibble with such an attractive voice and a confident characterization.
Baritone Mark Delavan brought his vast experience to bear as the powerful High Priest of Dagon. Delavan's complete mastery of voice and character made one focus on his every note. His precise French pronunciation was clearly projected and his assured handling of the role's range made it clear that a true professional was at hand.
The rest of the soloists were fully up to their tasks. Bass Adam Lau, a returning favorite here, sang the brief role of An Old Hebrew with such rich tone and solid production that his performance remains equally in the memory along with the principals. Baritone Hugh Russell made his mark in the rather thankless role of Abimélech, the Philistine commander whom Samson kills for denouncing the Hebrews' God. Wade Henderson (the Philistines' Messenger), D'André Wright (First Philistine) and Brent Blakesley (Second Philistine) sang their Act I trio with polish.
It's extremely gratifying to note that the company can bring such talented artists as Tanner, Martens and Delavan to sing here. Each has major experience at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as many other major opera houses in the U.S. and in Europe. This level of quality in the lead roles makes all the difference in producing opera that is vital and entertaining.
The success of the company's 2017-18 season stirs expectations for the 2018-19 season, which opens with a concert version of Norma and continues with fully staged productions of Carmen and Tosca.