Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007 | Talk about sexy. San Diego Opera’s sensual production of “Samson and Delilah” stimulates all the senses with lavish sets, rich voices, and sumptuous dance numbers and a first-rate cast is the icing on the cake.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera is based on the impassioned Old Testament biblical tale of Samson, and features a score that encompasses all emotions: from lustful and decadent to revengeful and despairing.

The story begins in Gaza where a group of Hebrews prays to their God for freedom from the Philistines’ persecution.

Samson (Clifton Forbis), the Hebrews’ leader, stands up and chides them for lack of faith. When the rival Philistine commander Abimelech (bass-baritone Philip Skinner) denounces the Hebrews and attacks him, Samson challenges him and kills him. The High Priest of Dagon (Greer Grimsley), angered, calls for the death of Jews. But the Philistines are terrified of Samson and his seemingly unbeatable power and Samson leads the Hebrews away. The High Priest wants to avenge the death of Abimelech, but how with Samson’s legendary strength?

Enter Philistine Priestess Delilah and her irresistible charms. Delilah’s maiden dancers perform a welcoming of springtime dance as Delilah tantalizes Samson and lures him to her far away tent in Sorek. With Samson temporarily away from Sorek, the High Priest of Dagon beseeches Delilah to seduce Samson and learn the secret of his power.

Although she makes her San Diego Opera debut, American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is no stranger to the role of Delilah. Her sultry, dusky voice captures Delilah’s moods, reaching high without sounding shrill and dipping low expressing emotion. Graves’ exhibits the body language of a seductress with devious intentions. When she laughs, delighted with herself and near-hysterically at one point, it chills you to the bone. It’s fantastic.

Forbis’ powerful tenor carries clearly and wonderfully throughout the theater. Solid, robust and with a mighty stance, he embodies the vision of Samson. A joy to hear, he’s also quite fun to watch as he interacts with characters, especially with a little boy near the end of the opera.

Supporting characters like Greer Grimsley’s High Priest add personality to the story. Grimsley’s rich, resonant baritone never falters; his scheming scene with Delilah captures evil plotting perfectly. It’s always fun to watch the “bad guys” from a safe distance.

Philip Skinner’s convincing Abimelech made quite an impression during his scenes, as proven by the round of applause he received at curtain. Whistling, clapping and shouting “bravo,” this was by far the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve seen lately.

Gorgeous sets and costumes from the San Francisco Opera’s production of “Samson” are used in this production (opera companies often loan or rent out their sets to other opera companies) and are a feast for the eyes; plush, fabrics threaded through with gold drape interiors, Delilah’s layers of flowing robes, larger-than-life griffin-like beasts frame the sides of the stage.

Although most famous for Delilah’s sweet aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” (sung beautifully by Graves) I found the entire score to be an aural adventure, changing moods quickly. Conductor Karen Keltner paced the music nicely; never dragging or sluggish.

The famous bacchanal scene where priestess Delilah revels in the pre-dawn hours with the Philistines manages to be sexy without being tawdry. As Delilah conjures, dancers perform a titillating, frantic routine that culminates with the crowd’s ecstasy.

Leaving the theater after the exhilarating, how-did-they-do-that climactic final scene, a woman and I discussed the audience. “Too bad so many people left after Act II,” she said. Their loss, we agreed.

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