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Tresnjak makes Met Opera debut in ‘Samson et Dalila’

NEW YORK (AP) – Darko Tresnjak thought back to November 2016, when he headed to the acclaimed modernist home designed by Charles Gwathmey in Manchester, Connecticut, he had purchased a year earlier with his husband.

“The election happened and I was really depressed, so I went to the house to recuperate,” he said. “I went on an Elina Garanca kick, so I was downloading her videos and listening to her. I was like, oh, got to dream about something. It would be so great to work with her someday.”

Two days later, Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb called and asked whether he would like to make his Met debut directing a new production of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” to open the 2018-19 season. Then Gelb told him it was starring Roberto Alagna and Garanca.

This undated image released by the Metropolitan Opera shows Darko Tresnjak, a Tony Award winner for “A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder,” who will make his Metropolitan Opera debut Monday in Camille Saint-Saen’s “Samson et Dalila.” (Metropolitan Opera via AP)

“I knew before he said it,” Tresnjak recalled with a laugh. “It was the first thing that made me really, really happy after the cataclysm.”

Tresnjak told the story to Garanca.

“He made me blush,” the mezzo-soprano said.

Tresnjak’s production opens Monday night. Gelb originally intended “Samson” to be a staging by Italian director Damiano Michieletto in a co-production with the Paris Opera. But Gelb changed his mind after the staging debuted two years ago in Paris. The cast was in modern dress , then changed into traditional attire for the third act bacchanal, staged as a Champagne-fueled costume party .

“I found it to be very grim,” Gelb said. “One of the things that I’ve learned over the years working at the Met is it’s fine to dig deeply into the subject matter and to show imagery that can be disturbing, but I found it to be somewhat unrelieved in its bleakness.”

Michieletto had Samson cut his own hair and gift it to Dalila. Alagna said director Alexandra Liedtke wanted a similar approach at the Vienna State Opera last May when he and Garanca sang their roles debuts.

“I think it was ridiculous to do that and I didn’t accept that and we made it in another way,” he said. “We must have a real collaboration with the director.”

Now 52, Tresnjak is best known for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder ,” winner of the 2014 Tony Award for best musical . His staging of the musical “Anastasia,” which opened on Broadway in 2017, has a Madrid production and U.S. tour starting next month plus additional versions this fall in Stuttgart, Germany, and the Netherlands.

His season includes the May premiere in Hartford of “The Flamingo Kid” with music by Scott Frankel and book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, and next summer Tresnjak goes to the Santa Fe Opera to direct the world premiere of Paol Ruders’ “The Thirteenth Child,” a fairytale inspired by the Brothers Grimm. He will return to the Met in two-to-three years for the world premiere production of Matthew Aucoin’s opera adapting Sarah Ruhl’s play “Eurydice,” a co-commission with the LA Opera.

“It’s a good thing to win a Tony award, because you get meetings that you might not have had before,” Tresnjak said.

He first gained wide attention for his 1999 staging of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Simultaneously, Academy Award winner Gwyneth Paltrow was portraying Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in the house.

“So the press showed up to Williamstown and they showed up for my play,” he said.

Tresnjak became artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Shakespeare Festival from 2004-09 and started in 2011 as artistic director of Hartford Stage, a job that will end after the current season.

He directed opera at regional companies early in his career, then focused on Shakespeare and other theater but returned to opera for James Conlon’s recovered voices project in Los Angeles dedicated to composers whose music was banned during Nazi domination of Europe. Those led to a 2015 staging of John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” at the LA Opera. Gelb was intrigued when he saw “Gentleman’s Guide” live and images of “Ghosts.”

For “Samson” the director was intrigued by an Edward Steichen photo of Gloria Swanson in black lace .

“She looked so seductive in the lace and so dangerous,” Tresnjak said. “So I started looking at photographs of women shot through lace behind Venetian blinds and I started to look at lattice work, that kind of lace work in architecture, in fashion, in the ancient world.”

Unlike theater, opera has relatively little rehearsal time.

“When it comes together, an opening night of the opera, it gives you hope for the whole world,” he said.

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