Camille Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila (1877)

Opera in three acts and four tableaux. Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes. Okay, so this isn’t a “non-famous opera” as many of the entries on this blog are but I have read the reviews for Sir Denis Forman’s “A Night at the Opera” to which this blog is indebted and this opera popped up A LOT as a glaring omission so I am reviewing it here. I would suggest ignoring this performance visually because it is rather distracting albeit stilted  but this is musically an excellent representation with Domingo and Borodina. There are French subtitles on the video though so if you are one of those people who gets distracted by subtitles, just read them while you listen. The opera begins at around 2:35 and the times should be counted starting from that point as 0.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGLZZz61aOM

PLOT: Gaza, around 1150 B.C.(E.).  For those who do not already know the story, or don’t have a Bible ready to look it up: Sampson is a great judge of the Israelites and he is ensnared by Delila who is asked by the High Priest of Dagon to find out the secret of his strength. Who would have guessed that it was because he never went to the barber?!? He is captured by Delila’s employers (the Philistines) but in one last proof of the power of the Hebrew God he brings down the temple of Dagon on the Philistines.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A square in Gaza. (48 minutes)

4: The prelude and especially the opening choral extravaganza * are deadly serious and rich in explanation (depressing as it might be as the Hebrews see little to hope for) but low on any action and sort of, well, boring. In the prelude especially we get the strong sense that we are wandering about aimlessly. But the music is surprisingly consistent.

9: Finally, Samson arrives to give them some hope and that God will protect them *. Also, God will bring an army one day!

21: The Philistines show up and their leader Abimelech wants no mercy for the Hebrews in an arioso straight out of the world of oratorio but Samson stands up to him which prompts Abimelech to attack him with a sword. Unarmed, Samson’s strength saves him and he is able to wrestle the sword out of Abimelech’s hand and slays him with it. Samson’s song of defiance (con coro) before this is actually the first really catchy music in the opera **. But the scene itself is almost totally meaningless.

27, 31: The High Priest comes on cursing this Israelites who have decided in reaction to the Philistines to burn down their wheat fields. This is okay and there is an interaction between him and three other Philistine men with a recurring brass theme but then suddenly after they are gone we get this strikingly classical sounding orchestral interlude which brings us back to the world of oratorio which the act started out with *. First a male chorus in what sounds a lot like plainchant followed by a beautiful prayer from an Old Hebrew **.

34: A chorus of Philistine priestesses comes off with a sweet orchestration *.

36: Dalila’s first siren song as she attempts to seduce Samson on first encounter *. The Old Hebrew tries to stop him but he is falling for all of this. The priestesses then dance.

41: Dalila has a second go *. This time she is much slower. The Old Hebrew warns Samson again but by curtain fall you know that Dalila has won.

ACT 2: Dalila’s house in the valley. (43 minutes)

0: The prelude * is agitated at first, then sensualizes (woodwinds spinning about). Like much of act 1 it sounds so modernist for 1877.

4: Dalila knows Samson is coming in what is at first an unaccompanied recitative which blooms into an aria which gives us a good lilting romantic tune *.

6: The High Priest shows up and tells Delila that she has to destroy Samson, offering her gold. She refuses the money because she wants to harm Samson because of her loyalty to her gods and her hatred of the Hebrews who have just triumphed over her people. Much of this is typical of the opera ornery yet explanatory. He then leaves Dalila alone to contemplate her plan of seduction. Towards the end things get a little more agitated but never anything beyond *.

21: The Samson-Dalila duet, all 23 minutes of it leading to Samson’s capture by the Philistines **: Samson arrives in a sweat, Dalila greets him. This can be divided into several parts:

1) Samson tries to say good-bye forever and she tells him that if he wants her she is his *.

27: 2) Dalila’s seduction is set and Samson is ensnared admitting his love **.

30: 3) Dalila’s song of seduction is when Saint-Saens finally hits the jackpot *** in all terms: Dalila dominating, the amorous strings, the tenor ecstasy cries from Samson, the woodwinds telling us that this is all ultimately BS.

36: 4) Dalila, knowing Samson is done for, asks him the forbidden question: what is the source of his strength?: his hair, but he doesn’t tell her yet. As to be expected the temperature lows a little but this is still good even if Samson does take a few minute stories finally tell her **. A bit of a whirlwind all.

40: 5) The storm gets worse as Samson starts to break down. He calls out to God, she tells him he doesn’t love and and to go. He silently gives in. Philistine soldiers show up, Dalila alerts them and they arrest Samson. The end is a cliched dramatic cop-out. No star.

ACT 3 (34 minutes)

Scene 1: A dungeon in Gaza.

0: Another somber prelude leads to Samson, now blinded, turning a mill-wheel and praying for his people who are now being tormented by the Philistines because of his betrayal. The Hebrews can be heard outside doing their stuff nicely * but it never really takes off for the whole nine minutes. An obnoxiously lush intermezzo and a saccharine sweet (and totally out of place) chorus of Philistines follows as we get into the next scene.

Scene 2: The Temple of Dagon.

12: The Bacchanal ***, orchestrally a marvel and a big plus after how uneventful the rest of the act has been leading up to it. Yet I can not but get the feeling that it is an overblown and long piece of padding.

19: The 15 minute finale *. The High Priest shows up to a rather classical accompaniment, Samson is brought on by a small boy wanting to die, and the Dalila leads the Philistines in insulting him and then the High Priest in turn does the same. So far so good musically and dramatically but he and Dalila then lead the Philistines in a rather dim drinking song with obnoxious bells, the chorus is even worse though.

30: Samson asks God for one last bit of strength so he can give the Philistines a taste of their own medicine, this is rather subtle * but leads to a dumb chorus of delirium.

33: In the final minute, Samson and God satisfactorily bring the house down on the stupid Philistines   **.

COMMENTS:

Never before have I encountered an opera with such a good libretto but with such boring music. There are two truly great world-class numbers: Dalila’s “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” and the Bacchanal (both show stoppers) but the best of the rest consists of the Hebrews and Samson praying to God and otherwise there isn’t much else here except a mezzo-soprano trying and mostly failing to be sexy. The first act is incredibly slow and the third act has three long moments that come off as filler: the entirety of scene 1, the amazing Bacchanal and the less than stellar drinking chorus. There is a stiltedness which plagues the entire work (excluding the act 2 love duet) and this isn’t helped by the fact that Saint-Saens only wrote seven good tunes here. It would be better as an oratorio, and it all smells too much of Parsifal. B maybe B+.

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