A covering Kunde saves the day with Rachvelishvili in Met’s “Samson et Dalila”

Thu Mar 14, 2019 at 11:11 am
Gregory Kunde and Anita Rachvelishvili in Saint-Saëns's "Samson et Dalila" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Gregory Kunde and Anita Rachvelishvili in Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

The Metropolitan Opera brought in a new cast on Wednesday to begin a spring run of Samson et Dalila, which opened the season back in September. Even with fresh faces and voices, Darko Tresnjak’s debut production still feels overstuffed, though one unexpected element added some excitement to Wednesday’s performance: a pitching change after Act I.

Aleksandrs Antonenko has struggled in his recent Met performances, and in his appearance as Samson on Wednesday he had the added hurdle of a cold, something we were told only after the fact. Throughout the first act, it was hard to feel much other than pity for him as he struggled to stay near true pitch or summon any tone at all above the staff. Antonenko himself clearly knew something was wrong: close to the end of the first scene, when he had a few bars’ rest, he wandered all the way stage right and stared into the wings for a few seconds, as though looking for his cover. 

Relief finally came in Act II. Gregory Kunde came in to replace Antonenko and gave a heroic performance in finishing the opera. At an astonishing sixty-five years old, Kunde still shows impressive body and caramel color in his voice, and boasts focus and weight at his top, even on the opera’s closing B-flat. He gave a touching reading of the Act III monologue, “Vois ma misère,” bringing a weariness into his characterization without losing any vocal power. If Antonenko is unable to resume the role, having Kunde sing the rest of the run would hardly be a disappointment. [Update: the Met has announced that Kunde will be singing all of Antonenko’s previously scheduled performances.]

The main draw in this spring cast is Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila, and her performance on Wednesday did not disappoint. This role shows off various facets of her voice—the power of her instrument is obvious, as is the rich crackle of her chest voice, but when she eases off she often finds a flowing, chocolate tone and even lighter colors in her middle and upper registers. In her two notable arias, “Printemps qui commence” et “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” Rachvelishvili used a lighter touch in search of a subtle, quiet allure, rather than heavy seduction—so subtle, in fact, that it didn’t fully read in the Met’s massive theater, save in the contrast of the blaring power she brought to her vengeful plotting.

In any event, this has been quite a season for the Georgian mezzo: she’s already played leading roles in Aida and Adriana Lecouvreur to great acclaim, and is fast becoming a bankable star in her own right.

Laurent Naouri, reprising his fall performance as the High Priest of Dagon, was an imposing presence. His voice is not especially hefty, but it has rich color, and his command of his native French gives his singing a fierce declamatory quality. 

This cast also features two singers who are appearing concurrently in the Met’s Ring cycle: Tomasz Konieczny, who made an impressive debut as Alberich on Saturday, displayed that same smoky bass-baritone as Abimélech, the Philistine commander whom Samson kills in the opening scene. And Günther Groissböck, Saturday’s Fasolt, brought woody tone and grizzled wisdom as the Hebrew elder. 

As in this fall’s run, Mark Elder’s brilliantly colorful reading of the score helped to lift the performance. There was a strong sense of direction throughout the evening, from the magnificent, terraced build of the overture to the thrilling confrontations of Act II. The Met chorus, too, was in terrific voice, bringing solemn warmth in their pleading Act I hymns and blaring deliriously in the Act III Bacchanale.

Samson et Dalila runs through March 28 at the Metropolitan Opera. The final performance features Kristian Benedikt as Samson. metopera.org

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