KSO's Saint-Saëns Sizzles

Charles H. Parsons
Posted: Jan 22, 2012 - 4:39:57 PM in reviews

There are some good things to be said about opera in concert. Certainly from an economic standpoint, it's a good thing. No expensive sets and costumes. Thus, maybe even lower ticket prices for the audience. (One can hope!) The audience becomes a much more attentive listener without all the visual distractions. That helps with the drama as well as the music. The singers can concentrate more on the text as well as the music, without having to rattle around the stage in what just might be some off-the-wall stage director's “concept.”

The Kentucky Symphony has a strong track record in the presentation of opera in concert. This season's entry is Camille Saint-Saëns' Biblical opera “Samson et Dalila.” It's a “biggie” to stage with a lot of exotic costumes, elaborate sets (including a Temple of Dagon that has to collapse on stage, on cue, and not bounce some of its Styrofoam columns into the orchestra pit, which happens with persistent regularity), a ballet, a large chorus, and some big honker voices loaded with drama. For this presentation the KSO (James R. Cassidy, music director) teamed up with the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre (Everett McCorvey, director). This made possible two performances: the first (Friday, January 20) at the Florence Baptist Church at Mount Zion; the second (Sunday, January 22) at the Singletary Center for the Arts in Lexington.

I attended the Friday extravaganza. As the saying goes: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Well, it was dark, but not stormy when I arrived, but the weather folk were predicting an ice storm for later in the evening. This frightened off some folk, judging by the goodly number of seats that were obviously sold, but empty. This made for a two-thirds full house of brave souls.

And those brave souls were amply rewarded. The performances was sizzling enough to melt any mere ice storm! Chief sizzler was internationally known mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi as Dalila. Personally gorgeous in a stunning off-the-shoulder burgundy gown, she commanded the stage. Hers was a Dalila not just mean, but savage. She was out to get her man (Samson). Not for love, but for revenge for the havoc he wreaked on her fellow Philistines. Having already sung the role on stage, Rishoi was basically “off-book” and let the drama rip. Her aria “Amour viens aider” (“Love, come aid my weakness”) was a stunning invocation as she stalked about the stage. A short time later she sang “Ma coeur s'ouvre a ta voix” (“My heart opens at the sound of your voice”) to Samson, so meltingly seductive the guy didn't have a snow ball's chance in the Negev. Rishoi not only has the stage presence and the drama, but a voice of golden beauty, strong as steel, mellow and warm throughout the range, with laser beam top notes that could nail the audience to the back wall. A supreme musician too, Rishoi is the total package.

With a Dalila like Rishoi, one needs a Samson of almost epic proportions. Internationally renowned tenor Michael Hendrick wasn't quite epic, but a very sympathetic, deeply emotional, finely characterized hero. His voice is one of great strength, distinctly lyrical. For his big scene -- Samson, blinded, chained to a grist mill, taunted and reviled by his fellow Hebrews -- Hendrick spewed forth power, frustration and heart-breaking misery. He stunned the audience with a thunderous high B-flat as Samson brought down the temple.

The rest of the roles were performed by students from the University of Kentucky’s Music School, quite a more than competent lot. Kudos go especially to the High Priest of Dagon, sung by baritone Michael Preacely, a rich, good-sized voice of skill. He, too, was caught up in the drama. It is rare to hear a so strongly developed bass voice in one as young as Matt Turner. But there he was, low notes intact, a sonorous Old Hebrew. Rounding out the cast were Jason N. Brown (Philistine Messenger), Evan Johnson (First Philistine) and André Campelo (Second Philistine).

The KSO Chorale, stationed up in the church choir stalls, sang both Hebrews and Philistines. The use of microphones for them simply accentuated their rough, raw, unfocused sound, though they did scream well as the temple collapsed around them. The KSO itself played well, but with little excitement or involvement. Just so many notes.

The sound at the church seems to affect people in different ways. There has been some criticism that singers cannot be heard, that sections of the orchestra protrude, etc. From where I was seated the (Center, Row K, Seat 11) the sound was fine. Comfortable, quite evenly balanced, no trouble hearing the singers. Only the amplified chorus stuck out like a sore tonsil.

I just wish the singers had not been strung out across the stage, never the twain shall meet, practically tied to their music stands (although Rishoi and Hendrick broke away frequently). It would have been better for all concerned if there had been closer interaction among the singers, both for them and for the audience.

So a delightful evening came to an end and it was out into the freezing rain, ice on the roads and a slow trip home.

Charles H. ParsonsMusicInCincinnati.com