SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Samson et Dalila (1877)
Alves da Cruz - Samson; Klara Uleman - Dalila; Peter
Michailov - High Priest of Dagon; Mourad Amirkhanian
- Abimélech; Vincent Le Texier - Old Hebrew; Wil van
der Meer - First Philistine; Charlotte Besijn - Philistine
Messenger (acting); Maaike Widdershoven - Philistine
Messenger (voice); Wivineke van Groningen - Military
Doctor; Opera Spanga/David Levi
Directed by Corina van Eijk
filmed in the Netherlands 2007
Picture format 16:9; Sound format: Dolby Digital OPERA SPANGA FFDOC29 [100:00]
Let me start by saying that this is not a filmed performance
but an opera film. Obviously the soundtrack was produced first
and then the actors have been miming. Mostly this works very
well but there are a few occasions where the synchronisation
falters. This matters very little. What to some viewers and
listeners might be more of a nuisance is the very close recording
of the voices. They are there right up in your face even
when they are seen in the distance. The acoustics are studio-bound
also when the action takes place in the open but as so often
one adjusts to such anomalies when/if the drama is engaging
and the performance is good. I will try to give a general
description of what director Corina van Eijk has aimed at
and how it works and then leave it to the readers to decide
whether this is their cup of tea or not. I was deeply moved
and fascinated by the performance - but felt initially strongly
antipathetic; my wife left after twenty minutes and refused
to come back.
The original action takes place in Gaza in Old Testament time and
has in this production been transported in time to the present
day and deals with the political conflicts in the Middle
East – but the situation is of course reversed: in 1115 B.C.
the Philistines oppressed the Israelites; in this film it
is the Israelis that oppress the Palestinians and the High
Priest of Dagon has a black patch over one eye and looks
very much like Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli military leader.
Set among sand dunes, rusty cars or indoors in shabby and
worn houses it is a horrifying tale about oppression, humiliation,
violence and scorn but also more than one dose of blatant
carnal sexuality. The bacchanal is accompanying a scene in
a delivery ward with a number of women in labour pains hyper-ventilating
in grotesque close-ups, finally delivering at the same time
well shaped soldiers-to-be, who are collectively taken care
of by uniformed husbands. Samson in prison laboriously pedals
a cycle exerciser, naked; a woman guard sprays ice-cold water
on him with a hose; well-fed officers look on, mockingly.
I could go on for pages but this will, hopefully, give an
idea of what kind of performance this is. It is possibly
the most cruel, brutal and cynical opera production made.
Opera Spanga is a Dutch company led by Corina van Eijk. They have
been producing controversial performances since 1989 and
besides this Samson et Dalila they have also filmed Rigoletto.
Among the extras on the DVD there is also a sequence from
the filming and interviews with the director and the two
protagonists. None of the singers are particularly well known,
with the exception of Vincent Le Texier, who has recorded
extensively. They have been chosen very carefully for their
acting skills – and for their looks: you believe in them
and especially the Dutch mezzo Klara Uleman’s Dalila is masterly,
first as the seductress and then as the callous and cruel
ruler. The Portuguese tenor Charles Alves da Cruz’s Samson
is also an impressive achievement and his singing in the
prison scene is deeply moving. What surprised me most of
all was that Saint-Saëns’ rather conventional 19th century,
oratorio-like music didn’t in the least sound out of place
with the present day setting. On the contrary there was a
kind of cross-fertilization that made the message come over
to the listener/onlooker even stronger. The camera-work is
superb and brings the onlooker into the middle of the action.
There was no booklet with my copy and the text on the back-cover
of the box was in Dutch only. On the other hand there was
enough information among the extras on the DVD.
The verdict then? As soon as I came to terms with the basic concept
I found it a deeply engaging performance, but I can believe
that many readers who expect a traditional biblical setting
might react the way my wife did. Regard this review as trade
description and see whether you want the goods or prefer
something more conventional.
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