“The piece itself has a checkered history because Saint-Saëns conceived it as an oratorio. It’s not the most exciting piece in terms of its narrative, particularly in the first couple of acts,” lighting designer Donald Holder says of Ferdinand Lemaire’s libretto, explaining that larger than life images have usually served to make the work more dramatic.
Enter Alexander Dodge and scenery that kept the shop at the premiere opera house on its toes.
“Darko was interested in embracing the spectacle of the oratorio. We ran with it from there,” says Dodge. “A large part of our research was exploring Middle Eastern motifs and patterns from mosques and public buildings, the way those patterns and styles have continued, and then how a new language of architecture has formed from that. From this, perforated textures and the red thread running through all of the acts influenced our overall world,” he says, noting that the perforated, cage-like images suggest the spying, surveillance and voyeurism of the story.
“We were also consciously making something that was time-honored. The original setting and period of the story remains,” says Dodge, “but we also wanted to create a world that was simultaneously ancient and modern—not futuristic, but contemporary. We were looking at the ancient world from a contemporary point of view.”
“The sweep of space and use of color is a contemporary gesture,” adds Holder.
“Samson et Dalila was written as an oratorio, without the character development you would normally want in a protagonist,” Dodge says, detailing the black and white nature of the villains versus heroes in this story. “We embraced the over the top spectacle aspect of the piece.”
The Met scene shop resolved one major challenge by mixing modern and old-fashioned construction techniques. Perhaps the most extraordinary image is of the god, Dagon, in the third act—a 35' tall, golden latticework statue. Choreographed by Austin McCormick, dancers enter from within the statue, and climb and hang from the exterior of it as well. Dodge says splitting the statue to allow actor entrances between the two halves suggest the duality that runs through the piece: two conflicting religions, two societies, good and evil.
“We wanted the statue to be in the temple. We wanted it to be climbable and entirely self-supported,” says Dodge. “We tried digitally printing it, but the structure wasn’t strong enough to support the dancer’s acrobatics on it, so we used computer mapping to lay out the landscape of the body, and then an old construction method of layering up wood lath, linen, and glue to make the structure. The scaled latticework was then hand-drawn and hand-cut out of the structure. We had to use contemporary methods to get us there, but at the end of the day, it is handmade, old school construction—a true feat of artistry and craftsmanship,” says Dodge.
The team, including costume designer Linda Cho, had worked together on Anastasia, but no one on it had worked at The Met. “The Met is an incredibly supportive environment,” Dodge found. “You bring them challenges, and they want to figure it out.”
The Met’s technical director, David Feheley notes that Samson is part of a heavy rep, with one show rehearsing in the afternoon, another show at night, and perhaps a matinee of another show the next afternoon. Props had to come on and off the stage quickly. But, he says, “I think the big story for us was in the construction.”
“The head and torso were a real challenge,” he says. “A structure of that size, with multiple levels, that had to meet all the functional requirements of being climbable and also had to have the organic contoured shape of a torso” was difficult, to say the least. “We looked at some new technologies but decided right away to go with some real hand work. We went to an old school system of steaming strips of wood, building them over a core, and removing the core inside. The guys in the shop did an amazing job,” he says. There were layers of cloth between each layer of wood strips, and the whole structure had to be finished by hand and painted to feel smooth. The torso had to sustain not only performers who hung on it and danced on it but movement into temporary storage between performances and permanent container storage in New Jersey until the show re-enters the rep sometime in the future. “Our shows have an incredibly long life,” Feheley says.
Another challenge was destroying the temple at the end of the opera, when Samson regains his strength and pulls it down to crush his enemies. In previous productions, The Met built scenery that could fall. This time, Holder’s lighting toppled the temple.
Stay tuned for more about Donald Holder’s lighting and Linda Cho’s costumes in Part Two.