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Take a stroll through the opera section of Tower Records some time, and you’ll find the Three Tenors hard to avoid. It’s not just the countless recitals and opera sets starring Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras or the live relays of their mega-concerts from Stadium X or Y filling the bins. More recently, indie labels have been cobbling together collections of tenor recordings from earlier in the century with titles like Three Legendary Tenors or Three Edison Tenors or simply Three Tenors, minus the definite article—anything so long as that essential three-ness is there. The marketing sense is unassailable: It exploits all the current media hype to promote repackaged historical material.

Only thing is, our own Three Tenors are starting to qualify as historical material themselves. With a combined age approaching 200, José, Luciano, and, yes, even that Energizer Bunny, Plácido, can’t have that many high C’s left. So the question is raised, ad nauseam: “Who’s going to be the Fourth Tenor?” Names like Hadley, Leech, Mora, La Scola, Merritt, Blake, Gimenez, Vargas, Bartolini, Canoncini, and Heppner have been touted for the Zeppo slot. But that delicate blend of talent and charisma, of looks and musicianship, of Barnum and Bailey, has eluded them all, however impressive their singing may be (and in Heppner’s case, impressive only begins to cover it). Roberto Alagna alone seems to have conjured listener and media affection in that sold-out-house kind of way, and many have suggested the world has found its Fourth Tenor.

Well, guess what: Number Five just showed up. Argentine tenor José Cura—he of the beautiful voice, matinee-idol looks, solid acting instincts, and rumored ego—has stopped off at Washington Opera for his East Coast debut, on his way to opening night at the Met next year. He’s here to sing Samson in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. The role has been appropriated of late by Domingo, but responds best to the kind of hefty voice Jon Vickers used to bring to it. Cura bears some similarities to Vickers in terms of basic vocal equipment: the baritonal timbre and trumpeting high notes, the reserves of power fueling the sound, even the Vickers-like tendency to croon the softest music.

But whereas Vickers sounded very much his own man, outside any specific national tradition, Cura recalls a kind of passionate Italian voice that’s pretty much disappeared from the scene. The steamrolling power of del Monaco, the open, forward tone of Di Stefano, and the sheer beauty (even at great volume) of Corelli all find parallels in Cura’s singing. His only worrisome traits are a tendency to crank up the volume at the least provocation and the odd pop-style scoop he employs on certain notes. But these things are fixable. Top to bottom, this guy’s the genuine article.

His costar is Denyce Graves—D.C. native, Ellington grad, world-class mezzo-of-the-moment—who shouldn’t disappoint local fans. The musky perfume of her voice is still very much in evidence, and if she trades more on her stage presence than on dramatic nuance, she’s nevertheless a captivating Dalila. Costumed to take full advantage of her stunning looks, she’s imperious or smoldering as needed, and she goes for the gusto in her extended love scene with Cura. Let’s hope the moments of flatness and edginess were symptoms of opening-night haste and nerves and not a result of a too-much-too-soon international schedule.

With an exciting baritone sounding rough-hewn from some stately oak, veteran Justino Diaz makes an imposing High Priest of Dagon. Rosendo Flores does memorable work in the brief baritone role of Abimélech. Ditto bass Jonathan Deutsch as the Old Hebrew. But the starriest singer keeps silent all evening. Making his WashOp podium debut, Plácido Domingo conducts a solid, if unexceptional, reading of the score. Domingo is younger at the conducting biz than he is at singing, so Saint-Saëns’ busy instrumental writing at the opening of Act 1 and quasi-fugal choruses later on only just hang together, lacking the trim finish that could really sell them. Nothing Domingo does in the pit is less than professional, but his waves of lyricism have a tendency to develop an unwelcome chop from time to time. (Again, these impressions stem from opening night, and fine-tuning is bound to happen in subsequent performances.)

The musical demands of S et D can be met by any large opera house with access to the international casting pool. But the opera becomes a challenge in its staging demands. Saint-Saëns knew his Wagner, and when he was writing S et D, Tristan und Isolde would have been fresh in his mind. (Saint-Saëns wowed Wagner on one occasion by sitting down at the piano and playing the entire four-and-a-half-hour score of Tristan from memory.) In terms of story structure, Saint-Saëns turned a thrice-familiar Bible story into Tristan’s Gallic cousin. Act 1 organizes a meet cute between the leaders of two warring nations. In Act 2, they get to know each other in the biblical sense, and loverboy is beset by enemies. Act 3, after much lamentation and gnashing of teeth, brings annihilation on everyone. Of course, the love is one-sided in S et D, and the whole Yahweh factor mucks things up further. But the shift from large-scale scenes of Israelite suffering to the intimacy of Dalila’s bedroom to the bacchanalian revels of the Philistines makes for some dramatic schizophrenia.

What really complicates matters, though, are the shifts in style and form from act to act. The static Bach-cum-Mendelssohn writing of the first act gives way to Act 2 love music that’s expected to move us on an intimate, human level. Most of the final act is a wild and wacky ballet. This is the portion of WashOp’s production that’s bound to divide opinion. Choreographer Youri Vàmos has done a Rite of Spring riff on Saint-Saëns’ glitzy “Bacchanale,” loading it with animal movement, simulated sex, and a you-are-there throat slitting for the sacrificial virgin. I’ve seen Vàmos do some terrific work—his Deutsche Oper Ballet, Dusseldorf, double-bill of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and The Wooden Prince was one of the sexiest, most arresting deconstructions I’ve come across in years—but here his approach only partly works. Sinewy and silly by turns, the choreography offers there’s too much birdlike flapping that resembles pigeons caught under eaves. Regular Vàmos lead dancer Jhane Hill does much with his buff, towering physique and mesmerizing stare to sell the concept. But matters aren’t helped by Saint-Saëns’ hothouse Middle Easternisms, which provide a virtual ur-text for Hollywood sword-and-sandal soundtracks.

Director Giancarlo del Monaco (son of Mario del Monaco, the Cura-like tenor mentioned earlier) does what he can with this strange hybrid of an opera. His striking opening tableau of Israelites lying prostrate on a steeply raked stage platform would have seemed that much more impressive if it hadn’t looked like a color Xerox of John Dexter’s similar opening to Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met. But opting for striking geometry over senseless movement is a wise decision in the lengthy choral scenes. Elsewhere del Monaco draws impassioned responses from his singers and shows a real talent for contorting their bodies into elaborate poses of supplication. He’s helped tremendously by set designer Michael Scott’s sand-colored, rune-engraved walls, ramps, and stairways. But some stage crew member is undoubtedly suffering now for toppling the Philistine temple well before the finale of the opera on opening night. The two-story styrofoam statues and columns nearly took out a passel of choristers. (One poor guy spent the last few minutes of the opera staggering around in shock, adjusting his wig.) Cura survived the ordeal, and it’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, we’d all be back at Square Four. CP

At the Nov. 27 performance, Ian DeNolfo and Catherine Keen sing the leads, and Eduardo Del Campo takes on the role of High Priest.