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Samson and Delilah

Allow Yourself to be Seduced

Camille Saint-Saens’ "Samson and Delilah" is perhaps one of the most violently erotic operas in all of history. Far be it from the frivolous coquettishness of librettos like "Don Giovanni" or "La Traviata" -- which despite their illustriousness, border on inconsequential melodrama -- the love story of "Samson and Delilah" is nicely tempered by stuff like religious oppression, psychic torment, and the poignancy of heartbreak, made all the more glorious given the bleak Old Testament mise en scene.

Director Sandra Bernhard breathes new life into the San Francisco Opera’s sumptuous, decidedly decadent recreation of an immemorial classic. The story unfolds in three acts, but given the scant mention of the iconic couple in the actual Old Testament, the tale is focused, nearly claustrophobic, in its leisurely attention to the unfolding drama.

Act I is solemn and rather slow. Tenor Clifton Forbis, a valiant yet irritatingly goodie-two-shoes Samson, attempts to console a mass of beleaguered Israelites, whose dirge-like incantations infuse the arid set with a mournful yet near-transcendent feel. For a while, the Israelites and Philistines (who are the oppressive conquerors) wax poetic about whether or not Jehovah can take on Dagon, a demonic-looking Semitic fertility god. Samson eventually gets the better of the Philistines with a little faith and alchemy.

Despite the mammoth ensemble, which casts a gorgeously muted aura of defeat and barely muffled violence over the entire scene, there’s no real sense of dramatic duress until we get to the meat of the opera. That’s when Delilah, played by celebrated Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, comes in with her posse of temptresses to bestow garlands upon the Israelite victors. Her rich, sonorous voice and imperious, “just try to look away” composure crushes Samson’s anti-Philistine resolve while ensorcelling audience members with the promise of enchantment instead of all that silly war stuff.

Act II gets cushier than ever. Set in Delilah’s voluptuously accented lair (naturally, lots of plump cushions and gossamer drapes), the scenes introduce us to Delilah’s motive to ensnare the lovestruck Samson and discover the “secret” to his strength, in order to avenge her people. In the beginning, Delilah confides her plan to the High Priest of Dagon, played by baritone Juha Uusitalo, who despite resembling an Australian frilled-neck lizard, booms out his lines with ominous aplomb as he encourages Delilah’s seduction.

When Samson finally stumbles into Delilah’s quarters, it’s hard not to pity him his obtuse devotion. Perhaps the most moving scene of the opera is the gorgeous aria, “Mon coeur s’ouvre À ta voix”, in which Delilah beguiles Samson to surrender to his passion for her. The obvious analogy that is drawn between love and war, given both Samson and Delilah’s numerous references to conquering the base other, is especially efficacious. Despite the languor and sensuality of the scene, love -- described to the accompaniment of lightning and thunder, which seem to reveal both Delilah’s betrayal and Samson’s inner torment -- is portrayed as the most dangerous force imaginable, capable of vanquishing even the most resolute of men and of defying even the supremest of gods.

The final act is the clincher. An ostentatious 40-foot-tall image of the god Dagon sits amid a sumptuous Philistine pavilion, in which dozens of half-naked sybarites celebrate Samson’s defeat. The voluminous chiaroscuro effect of the staging is reminiscent of the paintings of Botticelli or Vermeer. The wanton pageantry is well timed to the choreography of Kenneth von Heidecke, whose dancers gambol around and perform fertility-invoking acrobatics to the facile accompaniment of an eastern-sounding orchestration. The scene shaves a good several minutes off the rest of the action, but the eye candy is purely appreciated.

Under the musical direction of Patrick Summers, Saint-Saens’ opera is beautifully lush and dramatic without approaching the schlocky terrain of its peers. Borodina’s Delilah is far more complex in her calculated passion and bursts of impetuous anger than the Old Testament story might suggest. And despite her assumption of a clichéd, timeworn role (that of temptress), her mastery over the obsequious Samson is awe-inspiring. While Forbis’ Samson is precise yet bromidic, he is most stirring alongside Delilah rather than in his moments of heroism. It is the chinks in the armor of the warrior that make him both interesting and sympathetic.

The climactic moments and impossibly regal sets are part of what make this version of "Samson and Delilah" so sublime, but it’s the obsessive will to love, despite all consequences, and the ineluctable tragedy of the tale that move us. Both Borodina and Forbis encapsulate the darkness and simultaneous transcendence of love exquisitely, making this adaptation one that’s ultimately, like Delilah herself, impossible to resist.

The opera plays through September 28. Tickets are $15-275.