Opera for Philistines

From the vagaries of fashion to trends in cuisine, the world looks up to the French. Two centuries ago, when the music literati believed Italy had a monopoly on fine opera, the French came along and changed everything. They believed theater wasn't any good without dance and well-crafted stories, so they did away with silly, Italianate plots and slipped ballet and huge choral scenes into their operas.

By capping its season with Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah, Houston Grand Opera has given the French the last word. Conceived by Toulouse-based director Nicholas Joel for the San Francisco Opera, this latest production is a Gallic tour de force. And Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan leads star mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and Russian tenor Sergej Larin in fine performances.

Ferdinand Lemaire's Bible-based libretto is about a Philistine priestess who brings about her own people's demise after she betrays her lover Samson, who is one of God's chosen. The composer plays up the human conflict, polishing the opera with awe-inspiring choral numbers sung by the enslaved Hebrews and their Philistine oppressors. The show is topped off with an eye-pleasing feast of dance, the classic bacchanal of the last act.

In the opening scene, set in 1150 BC, the Hebrews beg God to release them from the Philistines, who worship a pagan deity named Dagon. Samson, with his superhuman strength, is their only hope. When he slays Abimelech, the ruler of Gaza, they manage to break free of their chains. In fact, things might have gone pretty well for the Hebrews -- if their Herculean hero hadn't succumbed to the charms of Delilah.

The opera features plenty of passionate moments between Samson and Delilah, scenes you won't find in the Bible. Ignoring warnings from his tribesmen, Samson pays several visits to his lady's bedroom. Though she appears to love him, she's colluding with the High Priest of Dagon to discover what makes Samson so strong. Eventually she wears him down, and during a lusty embrace he tells her that his hair is his secret weapon. Delilah turns against him, shearing his locks and throwing him to the Philistines. Blinded and chained to the temple walls, Samson prays for renewed energy, finally bringing the roof down and crushing the Philistines.

With his wild hair and crude costume, the chiseled tenor Larin imbues Samson with frenetic gestures that suggest the depths of his mixed feelings about Delilah. Opposite Larin, Graves is a masterful interpreter of Delilah, a part that has become one of her signature roles. Though the mezzo has become a household name, her television persona is easily forgotten when she sings Delilah's three lush arias. Her vocal mastery is brilliant, showing a low, luxurious depth that's smooth as silk.

The supporting cast is weighted with current and former members of HGO's young artists' studio, where Graves also earned her chops. Greer Grimsley's bass-baritone lends an ominous quality to the part of the High Priest of Dagon. Bass Oren Gradus, who recently grabbed a prestigious Richard Tucker Music Foundation grant, is well suited to his role as the old Hebrew who goads Samson into rousing his fellow slaves. And bass Joshua Winograde offers a distinguished portrait of general Abimelech.

Veteran HGO chorus master Richard Bado deserves raves for his handling of the show's choral complexity. The opera's choral numbers are stylistically varied, moving from somber Hebrew prayer to the lighthearted lyricism of the Philistine women to the uproarious heathen merrymaking of the final act. Jordan and the HGO orchestra present a clean sound from start to finish.

Only the dancers seem to have needed more rehearsal. One ballerina singled out for a slow pirouette looked awkward and wobbly opening night. Overall, though, Daniel Pelzig's Philistine dances blend well with the richly melodic score. Against tastefully opulent sets, Samson plays well to both the eyes and the ears.

David Gockley, HGO's general director, lent a certain symmetry to the season when he appeared on stage before curtain on opening night to make a rare plea for donations. Before curtain at Rigoletto last October -- five weeks after September 11 -- Gockley stepped out on stage to invite the audience to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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Cynthia Greenwood