Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 21, 2011

Quite a quartet

Four outstanding voices anchor West Bay Opera's production of 'Samson et Dalila'

by Mort Levine

If the Israelis think they have a problem today with Hamas over in Gaza, they ought to reflect on the situation in 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 the French composer Camille Saint-Saens spent a decade trying in his opera "Samson et Dalila." Periodically the opera gets revived these days; San Francisco Opera has put on several productions.

Plucky West Bay Opera brings its version to Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre 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.

The production had the exotic-erotic flavor of the way the 19th-century French envisioned the Middle East. Seemingly assuming that audiences would already know the story, the composer concentrated on shaping the conflicted characters. West Bay has 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.

Saint-Saens is actually a symphonic master, so the opera score is well worth attentive listening. He also proves that he can dish out the hits when needed. 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 required ballet featuring the now-cliched bacchanal song swiped by dozens of Hollywood movies was 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 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.

The chorus led by Bruce Olstad was 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, such as "Don Giovanni" and "Aida," which round out this season. The company has certainly delivered with "Samson and Dalila."

What: "Samson et Dalila," with music by Camille Saint-Saens and libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire, presented by West Bay Opera in French with English titles

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: The remaining two performances are at 8 p.m. Oct. 22 and 2 p.m. Oct. 23.

Cost: Tickets are $40-$70.

Info: Go to http://wbopera.org or call 650-424-9999.

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