LA Opera Samson

This is the week of Los Angeles’ annual identity crisis. On Tuesday and Thursday, in shorts and tee-shirt, I load the picnic basket and head for the Hollywood Bowl. On Wednesday I fish out a pair of matching socks and head downtown to the Music Center, where the Los Angeles Opera starts off its season with the usual opening-night gala. At neither venue is the dress code absolute; in with the black tie and sequins there were jeans and Nikes at the opera on Wednesday, and you can occasionally spot a suit at the Bowl. But this week’s intermingling takes getting used to: all the more so since Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila,” which kicked off the opera season on Wednesday, is a lot closer in level of thought to the typical Bowl fare than is Ravel’s subtle, exquisite “Sheherazade,” which Dawn Upshaw sang enchantingly at the Bowl the night before.
“Samson” marked the start of the L.A. Opera’s 14th season, the last for outgoing founder and general director Peter Hemmings; it served as well to trumpet the imminent arrival of incoming artistic director Plácido Domingo (with the rest of the new administrative team as yet unannounced).  In a sense, the “Samson” also celebrated the sweep of history within the company. Lawrence Foster, who conducted the inaugural “Otello” (with Domingo) in October, 1986, was again on the podium, as he has often been in the intervening years.  Domingo was the Samson; he has sung opening-night leads in nine of 14 season, and conducted two others. Two singers in lesser roles, Richard Bernstein the Abimelech and Louis Lebherz the Old Hebrew, are alumni of the company’s training program now well along in world-class careers.
Tattered baggage though it be, “Samson et Dalila” maintains its place in the repertory on the strength of its glittering surface. Sure, it has only its one tune worth remembering; its ballet is the ancestor of all operatic hootchy-kootch. Given a fair serving of charismatic lung-power in its two name roles, however, and a stage setting evocative of the imagined Loew’s Babylon lobby of everybody’s dreams — all of which it got at the Music Center on Wednesday – it can still dupe an undemanding audience into an illusion of witnessing some kind of masterpiece.
Credit composer Camille Saint-Saens as the opera’s masterful string-puller. Samson is a role fashioned in tenor heaven, from his first lurching onstage with his mighty battle-cry to his heartrending laments in Philistine captivity. Does it matter that neither musical substance, or anything in between, remains in the memory once the song is sung? No; what remains is the sound, if not the shape, of Plácido Domingo’s white-hot outbursts: opera at its most elemental.
Dalila is fashioned out of friendlier stuff; she has her one great tune in the Act Two love/hate duet, although it’s a long time in coming. Denyce Graves, apparently put on earth to take over and inflame all of opera’s bad-girl mezzo-soprano roles (of which there are many), with flashing eyes that could seduce any tenor within miles to abandon home, hearth and hairdo, was, in a word, sensational: lavishly endowed in voice and in everything else as well. (She even tried a few dance steps during the Bacchanale, a welcome contrast to choreographer Daniel Pelzig’s Muscle-Beach stuff.)
Douglas Schmidt’s production, on loan from the San Francisco Opera — garishly lit by Kurt Landisman from Thomas E. Munn’s original design — nicely matched the music’s tendency toward the ponderous overstatement: a heavy impasto of burnished color, as from watching ten Gustave Moreau paintings at once, and, for the final temple scene a terrific jumble of pseudo-Oriental statuary where you’re tempted to seek out the  popcorn stand. Nicolas Joël’s staging, tidy and unremarkable, at least nicely accomplished the final catastrophe that everyone sits still for; it brought down the house.