From the biblical book of Judges to John Milton’s 1671 “Samson Agonistes” — which coined the phrase “eyeless in Gaza” that gave Aldous Huxley’s great 1936 novel its name — and enough iterations of the number 30 to make prominent cabalist Madonna's head spin, Samson (Shimshon) has had a complex, intriguing history. The business with Delilah was but a footnote.
Camille Saint-Saëns and his librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire, simplified the story for the 1877 opera “Samson and Delilah” — boy loves girl, girl betrays boy, boy brings down the temple. Or, in Milton’s summary: “Love-quarrels oft in pleasing concord end/Not wedlock-treachery endangering life.”
Of course, there is also hypnotically romantic music, a pagan orgy (inevitably made hilariously grotesque by hapless choreographers), good roles for the tenor and the mezzo, and visual delights aplenty.
Friday, at the opening of the San Francisco Opera season, there was much to see. Dede Wilsey apparently bought up all the roses in Ecuador to decorate the War Memorial (in the theater, the lobby, the gala tents) with grand configurations of densely packed flowers.
The well-preserved revival of the opera’s 2001 production contains Douglas W. Schmidt’s phantasmagoric sets, Carrie Robbins’ opulent costumes (although did the young Philistine women really look like Tahitian hula girls?), and — sorry to give the story away — the collapse of the temple, which didn’t look nearly as impressive as it did six years ago.
Returning also from 2001, as Delilah, is Olga Borodina, a Russian mezzo with one of the mightiest voices in all of Operaland, and a singer who often wastes her gifts by not sustaining the performance. How delightful then was her appearance Friday in the first act, singing quietly, beautifully, astonishingly well.
Alas, by Act 2, noncommunicative (uncaring?) Borodina began to phone in her performance, making the 41-minute act feel twice as long as the 43-minute first act. What is Delilah without passion, without believability, without intensity? It’s a mezzo, with a gorgeous voice, doing the work that has to be done. Not to get applause after “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from an audience that greets the tiki-loaded temple of Dagon heartily tells the story right there.
Act 1 was musically exciting all around. Ian Robertson’s chorus successfully struggled against Patrick Summers’ thundering orchestra (which settled down for a much better balance the rest of the evening), Eric Jordan made a sensational “true French singer” debut in the five-minute “throwaway role” of Abimelech, before being beaten to death by the “revolting Hebrews.” According to the supertitles, they then sing “[We] the meek became the oppressors,” surely a mistranslation.
As to Samson, your heart must go out to Clifton Forbis, the tenor taking the stage immediately after the company general manager asked for a moment of silence in honor of Luciano Pavarotti, who had a half-dozen important role debuts in this house. The silence was broken by a recording of “Nessun dorma” — and now, Mr. Tenor, you're on — “top that!”
Wearing the same wig and costume Placido Domingo wore here in 1980 didn’t do much good for him either.
Forbis, who has the voice and stamina for Tristan, had neither for Samson on this occasion; he was uneven, and even showed discomfort. It was not a poor performance, but not a particularly good one, either. As to chemistry, already in short supply from Borodina, Forbis was much too busy marshaling his troubled resources to pay any attention to the woman with the shears.
Juha Uusatilo, the solid Dutchman here a few years back, was the adequate but indifferent high priest. At the very end, during the curtain calls, Dagon had his revenge again, the curtain dropping inadvertently (one would think) on the whole ensemble of principals.
Just another eventful evening at the opera.
Samson and Delilah
Presented by: San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11, 13, 19 and 22; 2 p.m. Sept. 16; 8 p.m. Sept. 25 and 28
Tickets: $15 to $275
Contact: (415) 864-3330; www.sfopera.com