By Mort Levine
Special to the Almanac
If the Israelis think they have a problem today with Hamas over in Gaza, they ought to reflect on the situation about 500 B.C. when the Philistines were running the place. In those days, Gaza was a place of pagan orgies and treacherously seductive mezzo sopranos.
The enslaved Israelis did have a strongman, the Hebrew Hercules named Samson. It's all in a couple of books in the Bible.
And it isn't easy to make a dramatic stage work out of it but French composer Camille Saint-Saens spent a decade trying in his opera "Samson et Dalila." Periodically, these days the opera gets revived; San Francisco Opera has performed it several times.
Plucky West Bay Opera brings its version to the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto this month to herald the opening of its 56th season. The enterprising team headed by Maestro Jose Luis Moscovich packaged a beautifully seamless production for a very pleased audience at the opening weekend.
It had the exotic-erotic flavor of the way the 19th-century French envisioned the Middle East. The composer assumed that everyone knows the story, so he concentrated on shaping these conflicted characters.
Most important, WBO assembled four outstanding voices to make this unusual musical masterpiece both an artistic success and an audience pleaser.
Samson, as portrayed by Peruvian tenor Percy Martinez, evoked the stocky solidity of Enrico Caruso. Without any showpiece arias, he used powerful vocalism to guide the drama. Venezuelan-American soprano Cybele Gouverneur met the challenges of alternating as a seductress and a vile betrayer with aplomb. Her rich buttery contralto low register added an appropriately sultry dark tone.
Two burly veteran basses, David Cox, who sang the Philistine Grand Priest of Dagon, and Carlos Aguilar, an old Hebrew, proved important in giving form to the battle between good and evil.
Mr. Saint-Saens is actually a symphonic master so the opera score is well worth attentive listening. He also, however, can dish out the hits when needed. Ms. Gouverneur hit a home run with her version of the best song in the opera, "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" (My heart opens itself at thy sweet voice). And the ballet features the now-cliche bacchanal song swiped by dozens of Hollywood movies and done imaginatively by Katie Gaydos, Daiane Lopes de Silva and Bruno Augusto from the Kunst-Stoff dance company.
Director Ragnar Conde moved his forces on and off the small stage effectively and in sync with the frequent mood changes in the score.
Despite the straightened budget considerations, set designer Jean-Francois Revon and costume designer Abra Berman managed to capture the requisite Middle Eastern flavor and color palette. The massive Greek columns came tumbling down on cue as anticipated.
The chorus led by Bruce Olstad were in magnificent voice, especially in portraying the lamentations of the Israelis.
West Bay has promised its audience a venturesome, ambitious lineup of rare operas, and new takes on the old standards, like "Don Giovanni" and "Aida," which round out this season. They have certainly delivered with "Samson et Dalila."
If you plan to go ...
"Samson et Dalila" will be performed at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22 and 23. The box office number is 424-9999. Visit www.wbopera.org for more information.