29 January 2015

The Barber of Gaza?

I always need to start out with the disclaimer about my lack of credentials in terms of critiquing music of any kind, and especially something as complex and storied as opera. And yet here I am sharing my experience of the Opéra de Montréal’s current production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. (Yeah, I’m going to keep using the French spelling just because…)

It was prescient of me, I thought, to have gone for a haircut earlier in the day, not even thinking about the connection with the popular interpretation of the story. It seems that I was mistaken, however, and Samson’s true loss of power came when he was forced to face his inability to resist his passion for Dalila. Defeated, his arrest leads to his haircut and somehow to his blindness, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

The first striking thing about this production is the set. It was nothing short of amazing and innovative. A collaboration with Circo de Bazuka, it consisted of a series of stark l-shaped surfaces that could move forward or back, but which mostly served as surfaces for the projection of dynamic images. We got to start with slowly billowing clouds that transformed into a gathering darkness. We were treated to the set’s transformation into a series of columned spaces (I don’t know how the projections were so controlled as not to stray onto neighbouring panels!) and to a very stylized performance of two acrobats moving gracefully and cloudlike above the crowd. Very impressive.

The story is a theme that plays a bit mirror-image to current (or recent) events: the Hebrews revolting and liberating themselves from their enslavement by the Philistines in Gaza. (I know, right?!) Doubly insulted by their success in liberating themselves and then their thanking their foreign god for it, the Philistines, in particular Dalila, will not take this lying down! She deploys her feminine wiles to lure him to a secluded spot and to seduce and disarm him to render him vulnerable to arrest. Note to Dalila: let go of the headdresses! A big flowery thing at the beginning, a big metal crowny thing at the end, but she looked so lovely in her bare-headed seduction of Samson in between…

The next time we see Samson, he is in a dungeon on his knees with his hands chained. I knew it was time for an eye examination as I squinted to see what was going on on his head. Shorn, yes, but there was something else…blindfold, or headband that had fallen? And why didn’t he just pull it off with his chained together but otherwise freely moveable hands? It wasn’t until he was led into the Philistine temple by what I can only call a seeing eye child that I realized the blindfold was just a way to portray the blindness. I presume some enhanced interrogation techniques led to the blindness itself. Then there was a crazy display of 1%-ness as the high priest and Dalila watch all the congregants deposit all their bijoux on the collection plates while they themselves keep theirs firmly on. Then the synopsis tells me that Samson calls on his god to destroy the temple and it happens, but I don’t recall any destruction!

So I’m raving about the set, I’m laughing at the over-the-top (operatic) storyline, but I’m not saying much about the music. I feel bad about that. Excellent voices, but Saint-Saëns doesn’t really do it for me. Now who’s the Philistine?! I liked the chorus numbers better than the big solos and duets and that really shouldn’t reflect on the stars, only on the composer and my own naïvité and ignorance with respect to music. ‘Nuff said.

Side dishes:

Opening remarks by the Mayor of Montréal (that guy is everywhere!) and by the Minister of Culture (and a bunch of other things) to underline the 35th anniversary of the Opéra de Montréal. There was some giggling in the crowd at the way the Mayor pronounced Saint-Saëns (enough to discourage me from saying it aloud!) and the Minister didn’t use the opportunity to apologize for her government’s cuts to culture, notably in music conservatories, so I couldn’t bring myself to clap for her.

And speaking of clapping, the curmudgeon and his friend who were seated behind me last time out for the Barber of Seville were now next to me, still complaining about Montréalers being too ready to applaud and give a standing ovation to anything, good or not. They didn’t even clap at the end, if you can imagine. I clapped, but I have to confess that their attitude (and possibly their surveillance) kept me seated, even though that deprived me of the usual view of everyone’s excessive bowing up on stage.

In a word: set. See it for the set. But also see it if you have a broader appreciation of music than this Philistine does.

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