Monday, January 22, 2018
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A biblical seduction, an epic fall: St. Petersburg Opera's 'Samson and Delilah'

BY JOHN FLEMING

Times Performing Arts Critic

ST. PETERSBURG — As artistic and executive director of St. Petersburg Opera, Mark Sforzini talks of "trying to find the balance between something that is going to be a box office hit but also wanting to present something that is not commonly done."

Now in its sixth season, the company that Sforzini founded has had hits with favorites like Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Verdi's Rigoletto, while less familiar works, such as Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, have struggled to find an audience.

Samson and Delilah, the company's latest production, falls into the less well known category, at least in these parts. Though it is solidly part of the standard repertory, the Saint-Saens opera has never been staged here, at least according to Sforzini's research. Sarasota Opera, for example, has not performed the work in its 52-year history.

Based on a Bible story, the opera is about Delilah, priestess of the Philistine temple, and her seduction of the Hebrew warrior Samson. She cuts his hair, which is the source of his strength, but he is still able, in the finale, to bring the temple crashing down. Though part of the French grand opera tradition, it is being staged in the relatively cozy confines of the Palladium Theater, with the first of three performances on Friday.

"What really caught me was the brilliance of the music," said Sforzini. "I've always thought that is one of our strengths. We can't always mount the biggest set or afford the most lavish production, but one thing I think we always do well is the music, the orchestra, chorus and singers. I think this is an opera that deserves to be heard, and I think we can do it justice."

Eric Davis, artistic director of freeFall Theatre, is staging Samson and Delilah. Sforzini likes what theater directors bring to opera.

"They bring a very high standard of acting to the production," he says. "They're not going to be content with just a park and bark kind of scenario. I like it when the stage director can come in and motivate the singers to take a risk and go beyond their comfort zone."

In the principal roles are tenor Jon Morrell as Samson and mezzo soprano Holly Sorensen as Delilah.

Sorensen, performing the role for the first time, and the only woman in the cast, has a somewhat unusual background for an opera singer. She went to Indiana University on a swimming scholarship, as well as studying music, before transferring to a smaller school. She expected to get in some laps at the North Shore pool during her time in St. Petersburg. "I always scope out the pool," she says.

Married with two children, 2 and 3 years old, the mezzo credits motherhood with enhancing her performing. "For me, I wasn't really an opera singer until I had my kids," she says. "You have to be very grounded to sing, and then once you have children, you're very grounded. And it makes me a more full person so I have more to bring to the music."

Morrell, who has sung Samson in two previous productions, is a heldentenor, or "heroic tenor," a heavier voice type called for in Wagnerian characters such as Siegfried and Tristan. "In the heldentenor repertoire, which is suited to this score, the difference is the ability to take a lot of pressure in the middle of our voices and still rise high, and not to tire easily, because these scores are very long and demanding," he says.

Sforzini quickly cast Sorensen after holding auditions for Delilah ("I just really loved her voice"), but finding the right singer for Samson took a while. He didn't hear anyone during auditions whom he really liked in the role, and other possibilities didn't pan out. But then Morrell, who lives in New York, came to St. Petersburg to work on the role in several sessions with the artistic director.

"Not only did I like the heldentenor quality of his voice, but I also felt like he spoke my musical language," Sforzini said. "I'm looking for more than just a great sounding voice. I'm looking for an artist who is interpreting the music, and I could tell he was an artist of that ilk. It just clicked for us."

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

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