My fellow opera enthusiast friend John Carnegie traveled to Cologne to see Vesselina Kasarova in Saint Saens' Samson et Dalila earlier this week and kindly agreed to share his impression in this guest blog post below. Thank you, John!
Samson et Dalila at the Oper Köln – 19th March 2014
(2nd performance of the current revival of the 2009 production)
The performance did not take place in the Opernhaus (which is currently a building site where a completely new theatre is being constructed in place of the demolished former one). Instead it took place in the temporary Musik Dom venue that the Oper is using: a prefabricated structure under a bright blue tent next to the railway station. It is a soulless shed with indifferent acoustics but good sightlines that can only be accessed via some unpleasant urine-drenched tunnels running under the station. Perhaps due to this (and the notorious reputation of the production), the house was only 70% full.
Tilman Knabe’s production - which is in contemporary costume with the Philistines as Nazi-like fascists and the Jews as (well) Jews - is determinedly designed to épater le bourgeoisie and some of le bourgeoisie were duly épated and exited noisily at the end of Act Two when Dalila cut off Samson’s penis rather than his hair. If the departees had stayed for Act Three, they would have become even more upset when a triumphantly smiling Dalila presided over a crowd of extras being stripped naked, raped and machine-gunned.
Actually (to my surprise) I thought that the production worked very well indeed and (although melodramatic) it animated and illuminated the opera far more than the somewhat decorous production in which Vesselina Kasarova first gave her Dalila a couple of years ago in Berlin. What was even more surprising was how Frau Kasarova entered completely into the spirit of this production. She has always struck me as a delightfully modest performer who (as one reviewer put it) has always seemed more attractive when playing men than when playing women. (Even her Venus in Tannhauser was relatively chaste.) Not on this revelatory occasion when she turned on what can only be described as the "the full Netrebko".
The production conceives of Dalila as a thoroughly evil high-class prostitute whose pimp is the High Priest. Languorously draping herself in suggestive poses across a bed while wearing very little in the way of clothing, Kasarova's Dalila was sensationally sexy - both visually (she must have been spending all of her free time recently at the gym) and (most importantly) vocally. Her Dalila in Berlin (while she was recovering from illness) had been somewhat tentative. Here all her vocal guns were in place and she smouldered and then soared through the part. What a frustration it is that she is spending most of her time doing concerts when (as with her Romeo in Munich when I last saw her live) she is clearly at her peak of her powers as an opera artist.
As for the rest of the cast, the other highlight was Samuel Youn (Bayreuth's current Dutchman) in magnificent voice as the High Priest. His scene with Kasarova at the start of Act Two was the vocal highlight of the evening. As Samson, Lance Ryan sadly displayed all the faults of an over-employed Heldentenor. Starting the evening with a fearsome wobble in his voice, he gradually became more secure as the evening progressed but his is not an attractive sound and his acting was half-hearted to say the least. In the pit, Antonino Fogliani (who conducted Kasarova's recent concert performances as Romeo in Oslo) did an excellent job of standing in at the last moment for an indisposed Claude Schnitszler. The chorus and orchestra gave a good account of themselves despite the difficult acoustics.
Overall, a sensational (and sensationalist) evening.
My friend Yvette also attended the March 19th performance and wrote her impressions on her blog, along with sharing a wonderful backstage photo of Frau Kasarova smiling to all the fans that couldn't make it to the show.