Met's Samson Brings Back Cecil B. DeMille Biblical Epics

Our Samson and Delilah, photo @ Ken Howard
When I was a kid I used to watch Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments every year it was on TV. I didn't watch it because I was religious or because of the special effects. I watched it because it was so darned funny. Nefertari (Anne Baxter) shimmying in her see-through gowns for Moses (Charlton Heston) while fending off the conjugal advances of Ramses II (Yul Brynner) will never not be funny. Eventually I watched a bunch of those Biblical epics and they were all great, kitschy fun. I mean in The Ten Commandments, could we really live without lines this this:
Nefretiri: You will be king of Egypt, and I will be your footstool!

Moses: The man stupid enough to use you as a footstool will not be wise enough to rule Egypt.
Maybe it was for that reason that the Met's new production of Samson et Dalila  was so enjoyable. This despite the fact that we had an ailing Samson (Roberto Alagna) who sang with a curtain announcement that he had a cold and barely had enough voice to finish the final heroic monologue, a glamorous-voiced but physically rather cold Dalila (Elīna Garanča), and a conductor (Mark Elder) who seemed to think he was conducting a Bach Passion. Because for a couple of hours, I was transported back to those MGM Biblical extravaganzas where gaudiness is next to godliness.

Orgy in the Temple of Dagon! Photo @ Ken Howard
Make no mistake: Darko Tresnjak's new production is not a great production. What it is is a fun production. As I said it evokes the old Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epics. Linda Cho's costumes were awesome. All the Israelites dress in drab garbs, while all the Philistines went to town on the colorful, revealing clothes. The multiple sets all look like a gigantic Middle Eastern harem, and the choreography of Austin McCormick (of Company XIV) involves a lot of undulating bodies. In the Bacchanale there was a neat transition from an all-male orgy to a mixed-sex orgy. Maybe some people will think this production harks to the bad old days of Zeffirelli excess but I loved it. Camille Saint Saens' opera demands a certain level of kitsch, and Tresnjak's provided the kitsch and then some.

Lamarr/Mature, Garanca/Alagna
Vocally the production was lopsided with a poorly matched Samon and Delilah. Roberto Alagna was struggling with a cold but I'm not sure if what I heard was a cold or just the present state of his voice. Any youthful sheen is now gone and we're left with a rather leathery, wobbly voice that flies off pitch on sustained tones and is rarely pleasing to the ear. With that being said, he did much better than the opening night livestream, where he lost his voice completely in the third act. Tonight he hung on by a thread, and almost made it to the final heroic B-flat that should bring the house down (literally).

Elīna Garanča on the other hand caressed your ears with her uniquely cool yet alluring timbre. Her wig and costume were obviously inspired by Hedy Lamarr's screen Delilah (see picture) but she has the physical beauty to pull that sort of thing off. Musically she was immaculate -- she doesn't quite have the earthy chest voice for some of Dalila's lower-lying music but she is that rare singer whose timbre immediately grabs your attention and never lets go. Both "Printemps qui commence" and "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix" were gorgeously sung, with the voice blooming in the upper register. She can also make her voice sound like a sheet of ice and so it was in the third act when she mocked Samson with her "seductive" music from the earlier acts. BUT ... there was very little chemistry between this Alagna and Garanča. During "Mon coeur" there was no sense of overriding passion. It doesn't help that at this point Garanča's buttery smooth mezzo blends with Alagna's raw tenor about as well as chalk and cheese. This was very far cry from their sizzling Carmens.

Oh come on. This is fun. Photo @Ken Howard

Naouri as High Priest
The supporting cast was solid if unremarkable. Laurent Naouri as the High Priest has a rather hollow, woofy voice without much body to the tone but he is idiomatic and he looked like he was having fun with the part. Dmitry Belosselskiy (Old Hebrew) was okay. Nothing memorable. The chorus was the huge star -- people who only know Samson et Dalila though the famous arias and Bacchanale might be surprised that so much of this opera is choral. Donald Palumbo deserves all the kudos and then some for the work he's done with the Met chorus. Mark Elder's conducting was mixed -- the orchestra sounded great, but the actual conducting was sometimes ponderous and painfully slow during "Mon coeur" to the point where Garanča seemed out of breath.

I eavesdropped on a few conversations around me during intermission. People all seemed to love this production. Again, no one said it was a great production. It was fun. And sometimes you just need fun.

And because this is just gold:


  1. Yul Brenner is so gorgeous and he had such a deeeeeep voice! He was the greatest...Ann Baxter is actually wearing a see-through gown! Can't believe it...Wonderful! Anyway, Ms. Lin, your review makes me want to see this production, though it's hard to imagine anyone coming close to Jesse Norman as Delilah. But life goes on and we must remain open.

    1. I know! The first time I saw it i was like "are those really her nipples?" But they were. I also love Anne Baxter's deep, throaty voice. Ten Commandments is really nothing without Baxter and Brynner. Charlton Heston was so stolid. I remember reading that he eventually resented this film as it typecast him as the Biblical hero.

  2. Those are definitely her nipples protruding in the scene where Nefertiri plays senet Pharaoh Seti. You can clearly see them through that gauzy dress. Since this was filmed in the fifties, I figure that can’t be intentional. So I found conflicting reports – one site says that DeMille wanted a special bra with built-in nipples made for Anne Baxter to wear, to make it look like she was busting out of her dress. Another site says that those are legit her nipples, and that the censors must have had a bad day and missed them completely. Either way, it’s totally hilarious, and a nice reminder that what passes for nothing today (on screen anyway) was whole other matter in 1956.


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