When is an oratorio not an oratorio? When it’s turned into an opera of sorts, obviously. Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila was initially created in 1867 as a scripture-based concert piece before the French composer was persuaded to transform it into an opera a decade later. So how well does this new production of the ex-oratorio work in the grand space of the Royal Opera House?

In some ways, director Richard Jones has had a rough year. His prosaic version of The Valkyrie at the ENO last December, the first part of a new Ring Cycle to be performed in London and New York, was savaged not least for its lack of literal and metaphorical fire. Here he has better luck with a pacier and more engaging translation which brings the musical elements to the fore and makes fantastic use of the ROH chorus.

As Samson, South Korean tenor SeokJong Baek (replacing Nicky Spence who broke both his legs earlier this year in an airport accident) has a voice as powerful as his character’s brawn. In contrast to the Bible story, here he plays a rebel leader, a rabble rouser, who inspires his tribe of Jewish slaves to successfully rise up against their Philistine oppressors. Their victory celebrations are tainted with the appearance of Dalila (a wonderful Elīna Garanča), a beauty who uses their hero’s weakness for women to lure him away. Before you can say “barbaric barbering”, Samson is betrayed, captured and his locks – and with them his strength – have been shorn.

Through marvellous use of staging and costume design, Jones brings out the symmetry and differences in the two opposing sides throughout the three acts. The first and third show the Jews and Philistines partying respectively, in both cases paying tribute to their hero but in different ways, the Jews heralding Samson in a more visually and physically more restrained manner than the Philistines’ vaudeville dance numbers for Dalila. Down in the pit, Antonio Pappano uses cellos brilliantly to turn up the drama and the woodwind is especially stirring in the middle act.

Baek isn’t much of an actor but his singing and chemistry with Garanča gives their duets a life of their own and underscores the emotional wrench of the final tragedy. The ending itself is almost as anti-climactic as that of Jones’ winter disaster, though he is hardly to blame: after spending quite some time building up to Samson destroying the temple, Saint-Saëns’s work allows for the briefest of denouements before we see the curtains crash down.

As might be expecting given how this was once an oratorio, there is uplifting singing and music aplenty in Samson et Dalila even if the dramatic elements could do with being fleshed out.

Samson et Dalila continues at the Royal Opera House until 19 June.

Photo credit: Clive Barda