It’s opera season again on the Côte d’Azur, and both Monte-Carlo Opera and Opera Nice open their 2018-19 programmes with works by French composers.
Monte-Carlo Opera presents Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, and Opera Nice features Les pȇcheurs de perle by Georges Bizet.
Samson et Dalila, a grand opera in three acts and four scenes, was written in 1877 to a libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire. Based on the biblical account of the relationship between Samson – the Hebrew hero of extraordinary strength – and the scheming Dalila who seduces him, the opera was initially intended to be premiered in Paris, but having been rejected because of its biblical subject matter, it premiered at the Théâtre Grand-Ducal de Weimar on 2nd December 1877. The Monte-Carlo premiere took place on 15th March, 1892.
Set against the cultural conflict between the Hebrews and Philistines, the opera recounts how Samson, having been taken prisoner by the Philistines, breaks free, and encourages his people to follow him. When he meets Dalila he is completely overwhelmed by her, and she determines to seduce him, and deprive him of the source of his strength, so avenging her people.
With one of the most beautiful arias in the opera – Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix (Softly awakes my heart) – Dalila draws the hapless Samson into her web, and he not only professes his love for her, but reveals that the source of his strength lies in the length of his hair. Dalila orders his hair to be cut while he sleeps, and leads the exotic and highly provocative Bacchanale to taunt her lover. Too late, he realizes what has happened, and summoning by prayer his immense strength just one more time, he brings down the temple of his enemies, crushing them all. He, too, loses his life, and Dalila dies alongside him.
The role of Dalila is sung by Georgian soprano Anita Rachvelishvili whose international career was launched by Daniel Barenboim when she came to his attention at the Accademia Teatro alla Scalla in 2007. He invited her to star opposite tenor Jonas Kaufmann in a new production of Carmen which he was conducting for the opening of the 2009/2010 La Scala Season, and which was televised internationally.
Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, making a return visit to Monte-Carlo, stars in the role of Samson. His repertoire includes the operas of Verdi and Puccini – having appeared in Simon Boddanegra, Otello, Manon Lescaut and Tosca. His roles in French opera include Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, and Samson – which he sang opposite Ms Rachvelishili’s Dalila at the Opera National de Paris. He has also appeared in Russian and Central European roles such as the Dvořák’s Rusalka, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Shostakovich.
Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila was last performed by Monte-Carlo Opera on 25th February, 1979, and in this new co-production with Chorégies d’Orange and Shanghai Opera, the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic, the Chorus of Monte-Carlo Opera (Director Stefano Visconti) and members of the Shanghai Opera Ballet are led by Kazuki Yamada, Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic. Design is by Jean-Louis Grinda, décor and costumes are by Agostino Arrivabene, lighting is by Laurent Castaingt, and choreography by Eugénie Andrin.
Performances of Samson et Dalila take place in the Salle des Princes, Grimaldi Forum, on 19th, 22nd and 25th November. Attendance at the performance on 19th November is by invitation of the Palace only, and tickets for the remaining performances may be reserved online.
Bizet’s three-act opera Les pȇcheurs de perl (The Pearl Fishers) was written in 1863, to a libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon. It premiered at the Théâtre-Lyrique de Paris on 30th September of the same year.
Set in ancient times on the island of Ceylon, it tells of the deep friendship between Zurga and Nadir, which was once tested to the extreme by a Hindu priestess, Leila, with whom both Zurga and Nadir had fallen in love, but they made a vow to stay away from her in order to protect their friendship. The two men recall how their friendship had almost been destroyed in the best known extract from the opera – their duet Au fond du temple saint – but unknown to them, Leila, heavily veiled, is brought to their village to bless the beginning of the fishing season.
Nadir however, recognizes Leila, and meets her illicitly, but when the lovers are discovered, they are both are condemned to death by Zurga. A raging fire in the village halts the preparations for the ritual deaths, and Zurga releases Nadir and Leïla, explaining that he set the village alight in order to rescue them. The lovers make their escape, leaving Zurga to reflect on the consequences of his actions.
Soprano Gabrielle Philiponet makes her debut as Leila in this production of Bizet’s opera. Her wide range of performances includes appearances in opera houses throughout France, and on the international stage she has appeared with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, the Belgian National Orchestra, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco, and at the Royal Thȇátre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg, and the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.
Tenor Julien Dranhe sings Nadir – a role which he has also sung at the Avignon Opera House, as well as in Limoges and Reims. He is the Artist of the Season 2018-19 at the Opéra National de Paris, where he has previously appeared as Gastone in La Traviata, Mateo Borsa in Rigoletto and the Count of Lerma in Don Carlo. Julien Dran has also appeared with the opera companies of Marseille and Bordeaux, at the Théâtre de La Monnaie in Brussels, Theater an der Wien and at Fribourg Opera.
Baritone Alexandre Duhamel, who takes the role of Zurga, has appeared in most of the major opera houses across France, including the Opéra National de Paris, and internationally at Teatro alla Scala, the Salzburg Festival, the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, and the Glyndebourne Festival. His repertoire embraces a wide range of works, including roles in Gianni Schicchi, La fancuilla del West Don Giovanni, Les Troyens, Pelléas et Mélisande, Così fan tutte, Samson et Dalila, The Cunning Little Vixen, Roméo et Juliette and Turandot.
Italian Maestro Giuseppe Finzi leads the Nice Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chorus of Opéra Nice in this co-production with the opera companies of Limoges and Reims. Direction is by Bernard Pisani, assisted by Sergio Simon who is also responsible for the choreography, décor is by Alexandre Heyraud, costumes by Jérôme Bourdin, lighting by Nathalie Perrier, and fulfillment by Bernard Barbero.
Bizet’s Les pȇcheurs de perl runs for three performances at Opéra Nice Cote d’Azur on 23rd, 25th and 27th November. Tickets may be reserved online.
Lead image courtesy Opéra de Nice Côte d’Azur