When conductor Adam Turner discusses Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Samson and Delilah,” he likes to say that the grand opera is the telling of a haircut gone bad.
Obviously, Turner is joking, but the remark does hint at his opera company’s season of love and madness-themed works. For its 43rd season, the Virginia Opera is staging “Samson,” “The Girl of the Golden West,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Lucia Di Lammermoor,” the first of which comes to Richmond in October.
Following the biblical story, “Samson” relates the tale of an ancient Israelite who is beguiled and betrayed by a seductress. While things don’t end well for the protagonists, it does make for good opera.
“It’s our biggest production of the season,” says Turner, currently in his fourth season as principal conductor and artistic advisor at the opera. “It’s going to be an incredible wall of sound, featuring 40 chorus members, an orchestra of over 50, and some really, really big voices.”
The opera company will follow “Samson” with “The Girl of the Golden West” in November. Written by Giacomo Puccini, the opera has the distinction of taking place in the Wild West. The work concerns an outlaw on the run and the saloon proprietress who loves him.
“This is one of Puccini’s best operas,” Turner says. “It’s basically a spaghetti Western. If you like the music of Puccini and you like old Western movies, this is the opera for you.”
While not performed as often as “La Boheme” or “Tosca,” “Girl of the Golden West” is a fascinating lyrical opera with a fast-paced plot and nods to American ragtime and folk music. Even if you’ve never seen it before, you may already be familiar: A melodic phrase in “The Music of the Night,” a number in “The Phantom of the Opera” is so similar to one in the Puccini opera that the composer’s estate sued Andrew Lloyd Webber. The complaint was settled out of court.
“Some of these melodies are certainly familiar, [and] because they are so lush and romantic and passionate, [they will] just sweep you off your feet,” Turner says.
Reflecting the rough and tumble locale of the opera, Minnie the proprietress is the lone female voice among dozens of male ones.
“Sonically, that’s certainly an interesting color. That’s a lot of testosterone on the stage, but it will be dominated by the character of Minnie, played by Jill Gardner. It’s a tour de force for any dramatic soprano, but she is going to just eat the stage alive.”
February’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will mark only the second time in the opera company’s history that it will tackle a work by British composer Benjamin Britten. Turner and Virginia Opera’s president and chief executive, Russell Allen, decided to perform the work after reviewing the company’s performance history and realizing they had staged only one other work by Britten.
Adaptations of Shakespeare into opera are nothing new, but this one sets the Bard’s original wording to music. Turner says “Midsummer” is funny and will be an opportunity for audiences to enjoy a work they’ve never seen before.
“It’s quite a beautiful score. It’s unique, and I think there are a lot of wonderful artistic opportunities in the piece,” Turner says. “We’re just trying to give it a dreamy mystique where it’s called for.”
Rounding out the season with a heavy dose of madness is Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia Di Lammermoor.” Full of haunting melodies and rousing arias, the opera is best known for its “mad scene,” where Lucia completely loses it. In love with one man but forced to marry another, Lucia murders her new husband and descends into insanity.
“It’s an opera [known] for the sheer amount of melody and incredible singing. It demands singers of the highest caliber,” Turner says.
Fans of the Bruce Willis sci-fi film “The 5th Element” may already be familiar with “Lucia,” as an alien performs part of the mad scene aboard a spaceship. “She’s actually singing a little bit of ‘Lucia,’ and then it morphs into more techno music,” Turner says.
As the romantic leads, Rachele Gilmore and Joseph Dennis will make their Virginia Opera debuts. Turner says Gilmore — who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera — should wow even the most seasoned operagoers.
“She gets these notes that I just think of as stratospheric,” Turner says. “I don’t know how she hits these notes. They’re so high and so glorious that I just think everyone is going to be blown away.” S
Virginia Opera’s “Samson and Delilah” plays Oct. 13 and 15 at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org.