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Handel’s ‘Samson’ at the Metropolitan Opera

February 4, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ It would be pleasant to report that ″Samson″ brought down the house at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday - and all the more pleasant if he had actually torn down the set - but the pleasures of George Frideric Handel’s music are of another order.

It is sublime, moving and brilliant music, written in 1742 in a burst of inspiration which followed the completion of ″Messiah,″ a work which it resembles not at all.

″Samson″ is an oratorio, not an opera; written to be sung by soloists and chorus who are just going to stand there all night.

That’s about what happens in the Met production, its first ever of this work. Elements of the set - columns and arches in the manner of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London - are moved here and there without distracting from the flow of the music.

Handel almost immediately tosses a bon-bon to the audience, with the blinded Samson’s moving aria, ″Total eclipse 3/8 amidst the blaze of noon 3/8″ Handel’s contemporaries wept over this song, which evoked the composer’s own struggle with blindness.

Jon Vickers, who sang Samson in the very first staged production of the oratorio at Covent Garden in London in 1958, sang it with eloquent pathos.

The drama of Handel’s music is enhanced by having singers and chorus in costume. The action is especially effective in Samson’s long encounter with a flirtatious, then imploring Delila, beautifully sung by Leona Mitchell.

There is no reason to think Handel would object. He staged his oratorio ″Esther″ at London’s Crown and Anchor Tavern in 1732, at least until the Bishop of London got wind of it and forbade any sacred stories in the licentious confines of the opera house.

The Met’s staging subverted the music in Act II, just after Delila’s scenes, when Harapha the Philistine captain (Paul Plishka) is rolled on stage in what looked like a wheeled balcony. For no reason on earth, attendants wheeled the platform here and there, and then Samson took a little cruise around the stage on his own wheeled platform, and then both executed a pas de deux in center stage.

So while Handel gave of his best, the audience was confronted with a scene which lacked only Harpo, Chico and Groucho.

The other problem at the Met Monday night was the chorus, which simply did not sing with the clarity and accuracy which have become standard in professional oratorio performances. It didn’t help that a couple of sopranos in the chorus screeched.

Carol Vaness, however, was more than equal to the demands of the well-known finale, ″Let the bright seraphim,″ a piece of music which even the Marx brothers could not diminish.

In ″Samson,″ the music is the thing. Oh, what gorgeous music. It has been heard so little, and bless the Met for bringing it back.

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