Divine passion: Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah, Grimeborn

Aylin Bozok’s productions of French opera for Grimeborn have all been marked by their elegance, restraint and psychological intensity. Bozok exchanges the orchestra for a piano accompaniment (played here with plangent, unmistakeable panache by Kelvin Lim), keeps the singing in French but projects a clear English translation above the stage, and places our focus squarely on her characters’ inner lives, their turmoils and crises. A Bozok production can feel unnervingly slow to start, but soon we realise that she takes simplicity as her tool, surgically removing any distracting elements and excavating the psychological dynamics of each work with thoughtful tenacity. As the evening unfolds, the poised stillness of Bozok’s stagecraft, which can initially seem static, foments a tension on stage which slowly becomes searing, direct and inescapable. Samson and Delilah, her third Grimeborn outing (previous productions are Pelléas et Mélisande in 2013 and Werther in 2014), refines the distinctive Bozok formula to a new level of minimalism: there is no scenery at all in this placeless, timeless setting, no props to speak of, and characters in simple costumes inhabit a flat stage dressed only with light and smoke. All the drama is in their heads – and in ours.

There is, therefore, nothing to shield us from a truly electrifying central performance from Marianne Vidal as a sultry, vengeful, yet perturbed Delilah, driven over the edge by her desire for Samson, wrung with unanswered questions as she tests Samson’s love while, we suspect, she searches vainly for a limit to her own passion. Vidal’s clear, lyrically expressive mezzo (and perfect native French) make her voice an ideal vehicle for Saint-Saëns’ score, while her seamless acting commands our attention, whether she writhes on the floor in dreaming ecstasy, demands male attention with confident eroticism, or cowers from a menacingly cruel High Priest (sung with flair, in fluid French, by baritone Thomas Humphreys). Vidal can sing even as she teases Samson with tempting kisses, her lines seeming to pour into his very mouth, yet still reaching the back of the theatre. This sophisticated portrayal of Delilah shows a woman devastated by a love which confuses her, bringing her both joy and pain, fulfilment and loneliness, and her need to discover Samson’s secret seems part of the development of their relationship, rather than the achievement of a plotted goal.

Bozok brings Samson’s psychological struggle right before our eyes, often pairing Leonel Pinheiro’s Samson on stage with Ozgur Boz, a silent actor who represents Samson’s vision of God. Movingly, this allows Samson to address many of his lines directly to God, as we see him first entreat for strength to resist Delilah, then finally reject God altogether in favour of his catastrophic love. Boz, sprayed mainly gold and streaked with white under a long coat, wears remarkable spiked goggles which are stolen by the High Priest when Samson, intensely provoked, allows Delilah to see his divine vision for herself (no haircuts here). Some initial tightness to Pinheiro’s tenor, and a few issues of vocal control, prevent him from being a true match for Vidal, but his muscular sincerity is movingly heroic and ultimately affecting. Bozok’s use of the Chorus, who double smaller roles while also illustrating “thoughts which attach themselves to different characters”, relies on disciplined, dynamic group choreography to project ideas of fear or threat; extremely challenging musically, but her cast’s concentration never flickers.

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 26 August

Rating: four

Click here to read this review on TheatreCat

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