Sunday, May 15, 2005

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled outside Dalila’s sumptuous silken tent of blue as she and the evil High Priest of Dagon plotted the downfall of the mighty Samson, hero of the Hebrews. The scene was set Saturday as the Washington National Opera opened the spectacular Giancarlo del Monaco production of Camille Saint-Saens’ opera-oratorio, “Samson et Dalila” in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

As if on cue, nature cooperated outside the KenCen when a fast-moving cold front unleashed a violent display of lightning bolts and rolling thunder, as if to underscore the importance of what was going on inside. Not only did the company do itself proud in this brilliant production, luminous with the burnished voices of Russian mezzo Olga Borodina — for whom Dalila is a signature role —and renowned American baritone Alan Held, who honed his early career with the Wolf Trap Opera Company. This “Samson” also marked the stunning company debut — more or less — of local-tenor-made-good Carl Tanner of Arlington as Samson.

Mr. Tanner actually sang Manrico in three performances of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” here last fall. But that murky production was not the best showcase for his considerable talent. His powerful performance Friday night in this huge, starring role made the audience sit up and take notice.

Even avowed atheists are familiar with the biblical story of Samson, the Hebrew strongman who led his people in a revolt against their oppressors, the Philistines, but was brought to ruin by his love for the wily temptress Dalila. Even today, the tale serves as a metaphor for battling bravely against impossible odds.

Dalila aside, Samson and the Hebrews are avenged in the story’s final scene, as God grants him his strength one last time. In the midst of a pagan bacchanalia — the opera’s most famous scene — the mighty hero brings down the entire temple upon the Philistines and himself in an act of redemptive martyrdom.

The Washington National Opera hit a home run Saturday. Not only was the cast and chorus exquisite, but guess who else showed up? Suddenly indisposed Saturday night, scheduled conductor Giovanni Reggioli was unable to appear on the podium. Placido Domingo, currently starring in the Met production of Franco Alfano’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” fortuitously happened to be in town and took over the podium, which he was, in fact, scheduled to do anyway for the May 23 performance. He conducted sublimely. The orchestral attacks were spot on, the ambience lushly romantic. And Mr. Domingo communicated beautifully with his large cast.

The imposing presence of always-welcome Alan Held gave import and menace to the role of the High Priest of Dagon. Miss Borodina was a polished, definitive Dalila, her icy sexiness and powerful voice able to rise with clarity above the work’s considerable forces. The smaller but important roles of Abimelech (Kyle Ketelson) and the Old Hebrew (Gregory Reinhart) were beautifully done. And the dance troupe, led by solo dancer Fidel Garcia, performed a finely executed if occasionally peculiar danse bacchanale within a fairly small space. The large chorus turned in its most exquisite performance of the season.

But the laurels Saturday, without a doubt, went to the former truck driver and bounty hunter from across the Potomac. Leaping from a resume that once showed little promise, he has become, quite rapidly, a star of note. His tenor is huge and expansive, his diction, particularly in a language seemingly devoid of consonants like French, was so clear that one could understand the words.

Saturday’s performance clearly demonstrated that Mr. Tanner is more than just a quirky human-interest story. His huge talent is the real deal, one capable, perhaps some day soon, of stepping up to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Here’s hoping he becomes a Washington National Opera regular.


WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: Camille Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Tomorrow, Friday and June 1 at 7:30 p.m.; May 23 at 7 p.m.; May 29 and June 4 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $45 to $390

TELEPHONE: Call the box office at 202-295-2400, or visit


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