Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the opera will be performing with the Virginia Symphony rather than the Richmond Symphony. Style regrets the error.
Like the male protagonist in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Samson and Delilah,” Derek Taylor was immediately smitten the first time he heard the opera in the mid-’90s.
“I was so moved by it as a student, I saw the same production four times,” says Taylor, referring to a staging at the Metropolitan Opera. “I cannot think of a more seductive score.”
Next week, the Virginia Opera’s production of the work comes to town, featuring Taylor as Samson. Inspired by the biblical story from the Book of Judges, the opera tells the tale of Samson, an Israelite leader with superhuman strength. After the Philistine Delilah seduces Samson and learns that his hair is the secret to his strength, he’s soon trimmed, blinded and imprisoned by his enemies. A twist in the last act dooms everyone involved.
Conductor Adam Turner says “Samson” will be the opera’s biggest production of the season, featuring incredible leads, 40 chorus members and more than 50 musicians in the orchestra pit. He mentions that many of the show’s singers perform regularly at the Metropolitan Opera and have joined the cast to try out these parts for the first time.
“It’s exciting for us, because we get a level of artist that maybe we might not be able to afford, but they love to come down and try out these new roles,” Turner says. “It gets it into their bodies, it gets them into their voices, and it lets them try out something for the first time.”
Although the production has no specific time setting, it’s vaguely modeled on the 1930s, adding to the oppressive atmosphere in the piece. For Taylor, the opera has parallels to the current political climate.
“It’s an incredibly modern story, if you look at what’s happening today in terms of tribalism, in terms of fascism,” he says.
Bouncing between religious chorus numbers and lust-filled arias, “Samson and Delilah” had a long road to completion and popularity. When an incomplete version of the second act was first performed in 1870, the French public reacted negatively to staging a work based on the Bible. Even after Saint-Saëns finished the score in 1876, the opera didn’t truly become popular until the 1890s. Today, the work — and especially Delilah’s seductive act two aria “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” — have become part of the standard opera performance repertory.
“It’s really an incredibly hot aria,” Taylor says. “All of the music that she sings to seduce Samson is just the most sexy music you’ve ever heard.”
Taylor touts both director Paul Curran and working with the Virginia Symphony as two highlights of this production.
“Paul Curran comes with a big reputation for being one of the top opera directors in the world, and he did not disappoint,” he says. “There are some operas that are just meant to be heard with a full orchestra, and this is one of them. The score is incredibly full and rich and lush.
“It’s going to be a real feast for the eyes and the ears.” 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 or call 866-673-7282.