Tattered baggage though it be, “Samson et Dalila” maintains its place in the opera repertory on the strength of its glittering surface. Sure, it has only one tune worth remembering, and its ballet is the ancestor of all cornball hootchy-kootch. Given a fair serving of charismatic lung-power in its two name roles, however, and a stage setting evocative of a fondly imagined Loew’s Babylon lobby — all of which it got at the Music Center on Wednesday — it can still dupe an undemanding audience into an illusion of some kind of masterpiece.
Credit composer Camille Saint-Saens as the opera’s masterful string-puller. Samson is a role fashioned in tenor heaven, from his first lurching onstage with his mighty battle cry to his heartrending laments in Philistine captivity. Does it matter that nothing remains in the memory once the song is sung? No; what remains is the sound, if not the shape, of Placido Domingo’s white-hot outbursts: opera at its most elemental.
Dalila is fashioned out of friendlier stuff; she has her one memorable tune in the act two love/hate duet, although it’s a long time in coming. Denyce Graves, apparently put on earth to take over and inflame all of opera’s bad-girl mezzo-soprano roles (of which there are many) — with flashing eyes that could seduce any tenor within miles to abandon home, hearth and hairdo — was, in a word, sensational. (She even tried a few dance steps during the Bacchanale, a welcome contrast to choreographer Daniel Pelzig’s Muscle Beach stuff.)
Douglas Schmidt’s production — garishly lit by Kurt Landisman from Thomas E. Munn’s original design — is on loan from the San Francisco Opera. It nicely matched the music’s tendency toward the ponderous overstatement: a heavy impasto of burnished color (as from watching 10 Gustave Moreau paintings at once) and, for the final temple scene, a terrific jumble of pseudo-Oriental statuary where you might search in vain for the popcorn stand.
Nicolas Joel’s tidy and unremarkable staging at least nicely accomplished the final catastrophe that everyone sits still for; it brought down the house.
“Samson” marks the start of the L.A. Opera’s 14th season, the last for outgoing founder and general director Peter Hemmings; it served as well to trumpet the imminent arrival of incoming artistic director Domingo (with the rest of the new administrative team as yet unannounced).
In a sense, the production also honored the sweep of history over those 14 years. Conductor Lawrence Foster, who led his usual capable if unremarkable reading of Saint-Saens’ score, was on the podium for the company’s inaugural “Otello” in October 1986, with Domingo in the title role. Bass-baritones Richard Bernstein and Louis Lebherz, the Abimelech and Old Hebrew in this “Samson,” were L.A. Opera resident artists, nicely honed within the company for the major careers they now enjoy worldwide.