ST. PETERSBURG — Is it an opera or an oratorio? That has always been the question with Samson et Dalila, the opera by Camille Saint-Saens that the composer conceived as an oratorio. It had the first of three performances by St. Petersburg Opera on Friday night at the Palladium Theater.
On the oratorio side of the debate, Samson can be an awfully static work, especially in Act 1, when the Old Testament strong man rallies the Hebrew slaves against their persecutors, the Philistines. There's a lot of ponderous declamation by male principals and the chorus.
But have patience. In the second act, the drama kicks in as Dalila casts her spell to seduce Samson, and the third act culminates in the Temple of Dagon crashing down. Pure opera.
No matter the merits and demerits of Samson, all credit goes to artistic director and conductor Mark Sforzini for mounting the work, not previously seen in the Tampa Bay area, and putting an interesting pair in the title roles, Jon Morrell and Holly Sorensen. This is exactly what an enterprising opera company ought to be doing, weaning its audience off a comfortable diet of Carmen, Madama Butterfly and other favorites to investigate a somewhat neglected corner of the standard repertory.
The mezzo-soprano makes or breaks Samson et Dalila, and Sorensen, playing the femme fatale for the first time, rose to the occasion, despite an unsteady moment or two on a precarious staircase. In the enthralling Act 2 aria Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix ("My heart opens to your voice") her low notes were richly expressive, the middle was solidly supported, and only a few high notes lacked luster, as Dalila charmed Samson into revealing the secret of his strength, then wielded (offstage) garden shears to give him an emasculating haircut.
Morrell's performance was a journey. In the first act, he was in good voice, big and full with admirably clear French, but there was no variation in the singing, and it wasn't moving. The tenor saved his best for last, with a powerful, perfectly pitched Vois ma misere ("See my misery") in Act 3 when Samson was shorn of his mane, blinded and shackled.
Baritone Anthony Zoeller was a serviceable High Priest. Among the small roles, bass Fred Furnari had some good, solemn contributions as the Old Hebrew.
Sforzini and orchestra gave an exciting account of the Saint-Saens score, full of surprising touches, like the ostinato in Act 2 that anticipated (by about 100 years) the minimalism of Philip Glass and John Adams. Director Eric Davis' energetic deployment of the excellent chorus throughout the auditorium (and even the lobby) did much to enliven the proceedings. Cheryl Lee choreographed three dancers — Emilee Dupre, Richard Glover and Renee Marino — in a bacchanal that was more playful than sexy.
With its cramped dimensions, the Palladium is a challenge for opera, but Sforzini and company have become expert problem solvers. The Samson staging was especially resourceful, with T. J. Ecenia's set of reddish-orange boulders open to the back wall, providing a more spacious feel than in other productions. Six white drapes hung from the high rigging came into play in the temple collapse, along with Keith Arsenault's lurid lighting. Costume designer Michelle Manchess Moore made like Cecil B. DeMille with all the togas and harem girl outfits.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.