Review: Samson and Delilah (Arcola Theatre)

A new production by Aylin Bozok is the centrepiece of this year’s Grimeborn Festival

Leonel Pinheiro as Samson and Marianne Vidal as Delilah in Samson and Delilah (Grimeborn Festival)
Leonel Pinheiro as Samson and Marianne Vidal as Delilah in Samson and Delilah (Grimeborn Festival)
© Robert Workman

Here is a considered production by a talented director that's scuppered by poverty of resources. Aylin Bozok, crowned WOS Opera's Breakthrough Artist for her triumphant Pelléas et Mélisande in 2013 at this venue (an achievement she matched the following year with Werther and, at Bury Court Opera, The Rake's Progress), has chosen to revive this once-popular warhorse by Saint-Saëns. Count it an heroic failure.

The problem begins with Bozok's declared intention to reinvent the story of Samson and Delilah "in a dreamlike, surrealist environment far detached from any form of realism so it can be felt on a psychological level". Alas, the environment is anything but dreamlike. It's the Arcola – and that, without the vestige of a set to cover it up, means bare bricks and exposed girders. Factor in supernumeraries in rehearsal blacks and smears of face paint and the night is more workshoppy than trippy.

Such visual interest as there is stems from a gridful of intelligent lights that designer Rob Price exploits to the max. At times, indeed, it's more fun to gaze up at the swivelling LEDs than to watch the show. Alternatively you can look at Ozgur Boz, one of Bozok's customary silent prowlers, as the embodiment of Samson's internal God figure, and wonder why he wears Mad Max-style goggles or why he needs to show quite so much abdomen.

Tenor Leonel Pinheiro is a hefty-voiced hero, mostly reliable but prone to the odd technical lapse on opening night, although if you're expecting long hair and a razor, forget it. In fact, Bozok's complex interpretation of Samson's fate, which she expounds at length in a programme note, makes it hard to fathom quite what he's up to half the time.

Pinheiro is not alone in oversinging within the small Arcola space; that's a common complaint with pocket opera, although not here in the case of Marianne Vidal's impressive Delilah. Vidal's performance involves some standard-issue groin groping and fur fondling (nothing particularly surreal about that) but she, devil that she is, also gets all the best tunes, and she sings them extremely well. It's worth going just to hear the French soprano's delivery of "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix", Delilah's indelible declaration of love. There is good work, too from baritone Thomas Humphreys as the High Priest who pimps her out.

The fine pianist Kelvin Lim conjures a magical palette from the Arcola's baby grand and a small chorus does its bits with robust fervour, but keeping track of Bozok's high-concept, low-budget staging proves far more taxing than it should. Still, it's a great thing to experiment, and the Grimeborn Festival is a place that gives you the right to fall flat on your face if you don't soar high. With Samson and Delilah (or Samson et Dalilah, since they sing in the original language) she does neither. But it's not her finest hour.

Sansom and Delilah runs at the Arcola Theatre until 26 August.