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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Samson et Dalila (1877)
Charles 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]
Experience Classicsonline


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.
 
Göran Forsling
 


 


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