One must not bury the lead, or “lede,” as journalists like to write: Samson and Delilah ends with a high B from the tenor, singing Samson. It is a thrilling, climactic note. At the Metropolitan Opera last night, Roberto Alagna could not get it. Nothing came out. Alagna, one of the outstanding tenors of our time, croaked. It was one of the most horrifying things I have ever experienced in an opera house.
But it’s also part of life. This is the way opera goes, sometimes. “Life is not a studio recording,” I often say. In real life—real performance—you sometimes croak, even at climactic moments, even on Opening Night of an important opera house. Singers are like athletes: sometimes you whiff or fumble or clank. Quite possibly, this croak from Alagna will enter operatic legend. But more legendary still will be the many, many great nights he has given to the public.
Over the years, I’ve said that cracks from a tenor or a French horn are the most painful parts of musical life. (How about cracks from a French tenor?) A croak, rather than a crack, is perhaps triply painful.
The Met indeed opened its 2018–19 season with Samson and Delilah last night. This is the Biblical epic by Camille Saint-Saëns from 1877. In the pit was a Brit, Sir Mark Elder. He did a competent job, although you can’t say that maximum drama was wrung from the score. The orchestra did some fine playing, including some horn work in Act II (crack-free).
Who was responsible for the tempo in Delilah’s first aria, “Printemps qui commence”? The singer—the famous Elina Garanca—or the conductor? In any case, it was harmfully slow, as the aria was deprived of its breath, its current. It was well sung, mind you, but not itself.
Quite possibly, this croak from Alagna will enter operatic legend. But more legendary still will be the many, many great nights he has given to the public.
One thing Alagna gives you is native French—as well as native Italian, lucky guy. He grew up in France with Italian parents. His French was a bonus in Samson and Delilah. Language aside, Alagna had a difficult Act I, seeming to strain. The role seemed a size or half-size too big for him. And he had to compete with a large chorus and a loud orchestra. He was better in Act II, when it’s just Samson and his seductress, Delilah. You can do less declaiming and more singing. In Act III, Alagna had no high notes at all, even before the climactic one (or non-one). Should he have risked going up for that final B? Should he have stayed down low, no matter what people would have said? He made a daring choice, I think, and probably the right one.
Elina Garanca, too, is good in French. I remember her in Les Nuits d’été—the Berlioz song-cycle—many years ago. As Delilah, she was dusky and formidable. More dusky and formidable than sensual? More imperious, too? I think so, no matter that Garanca is one of the sexiest singers ever to walk, or slink, upon a stage. She was best when she was above her break, into her high notes.
Laurent Naouri, a third veteran singer, was the High Priest, and, like Alagna, he gives you native French. Last night, he sang more freely and youthfully than I have heard him in years.
Samson and Delilah is a choral opera, what with Hebrews and Philistines, and the Met’s chorus came through: from the Baroque music that Saint-Saëns concocts at the beginning to the cries of religious frenzy that come later.
The Met has a new production of this opera, by Darko Tresnjak (making his house debut). It is a splendid production, in many respects. One thing I appreciate about it is that it allows the opera to remain a Biblical epic—a robes-and-sandals affair. A modernist, minimalist Samson and Delilah would be inapt. Act I of this production has an array of beautiful colors, including pink, when the Philistine ladies appear. A woman next to me complained that this was not Middle Eastern, more like South Florida—she half expected to see pink flamingos. I thought the pink was enchanting.
Also in Act I, there is some moving use of children—Hebrew children. There is a suggestion, as I saw it, that Samson has a family: a wife and kids. This would make his dalliance with Delilah all the more interesting.
Act II, at Delilah’s place, is a little weird. Where does this lady live? In a Vegas showroom? But Act III is terribly impressive, with some sort of monumental, split god. I mean, a literally split god, with two halves. The Bacchanale—choreographed by Austin McCormick—is suitably erotic and exciting.
So, a success, overall. But the climactic moment cast a pall over the audience, making the initial applause tepid, unsure. It was the taste you left with in your mouth. But, again, that’s part of the thrill of concert-going and opera-going. Life is not a studio recording, and would we really want it to be?