SFOpera - 'Samson et Dalila': A Glorious Finale for Parisian Grand Opera

'Samson et Dalila': A Glorious Finale for Parisian Grand Opera

This essay was first published in the September 2007 issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine.

Despite a long, insistent trend by opera lovers since the death-in-action of Puccini and the rarification of late-late Strauss to turn back to those two composers in their prime—plus the basic glories of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner—there still exists a move on both sides of the proscenium towards a widened, more diversified repertoire. The answer to that impulse in the last century would have been the appearance of new works. Opera lovers today are not favored in that way (except for a handful of recent bequests by Berg and Britten) and must look elsewhere—nearly always with inventive compromise—for the routine-breaker.

While Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, reappearing occasionally, remains far from rare or unfamiliar, neither is it a constant or overworked commodity. Fresh intellectual interest, a startling discovery of up-till-now uncharted musico-dramatic trends? No. But we may gladly bid it welcome. Samson, depending for success on the presence of two vocally phenomenal and (in the cast of the lady) physically glamorous stars, belongs in the attractive, post-Romantic category that includes such other periodic visitors as Manon Lescaut, Louise, and L’Amore dei Tre Re; works which, when cast with first-rate singing actors, can bring much pleasure.

There remains, though, one important difference between Samson et Dalila and those scores, which are predominantly intimate. Samson, cast in an ambitious mold, has retained over a period long removed from its first years of glory the style and much of the power of Parisian grand opera—that monumental art form begun in the late 1820s with works even then expansive and exciting by Daniel François Auber (La Muette de Portici) and Gioachino Rossini (Guillaume Tell). These two composers, one domestic, the other imported, but both in the mainstream of French musical life, were to launch an art form that would flourish for almost forty years, culminating gloriously in Les Huguenots of Meyerbeer, Les Troyens of Berlioz, and Verdi’s Don Carlos, created for Paris and sung originally to a French text.

Grand opera on the Seine reached its climax with this trio. After that the shores were still flanked by impressive monuments (among them Thomas’s Hamlet, Massenet’s Le Cid, Reyer’s Salammbô) in a genre that had—at its magnificent beset—dominated large scale Parisian theater for four decades. With the advent of Gounod and Bizet, and the stylistic unfolding of Massenet, another, more intimate genre—lyric drama—came into its own, taking over popular favor. Even so, a few grand operas—solitary and impressive—were still to make their mark in the closing quarter of the century.

Among them one must certainly reckon Samson et Dalila, in three concise acts rather than the old-fashioned four or five but conforming in general to accepted rules for the big stage, including an elaborate ballet. Yet what has assured the longevity of Samson is not so much its grand scale as the intensely glowing sound, the gorgeous writing for the two principal voices: deep contralto with vibrant top (a rare commodity) and dramatic tenor. The hard-to-find contralto with soaring high B flat has yielded in our time to the less rarified mezzo, but the spell of the music to be sung by either lady persists.

With text by Ferdinand Lemaire (based on the biblical source and rethought as a spectacle anticipating by more than half a century the type of holy-sexual pitch made famous by Cecil B. DeMille in his Hollywood epics), Samson began on a tortuous road. Problems of production and of casting made the way especially difficult.

Samson had particular trouble with early, recalcitrant theatrical managers because of a prevailing tradition against bringing biblical characters in costume onto a secular stage. The composer, in coping with this situation, perhaps tried to cover too many angles. What came off in his time as a clever compromise between the sexual and the sacramental too often suffers in our own from stylistic inconsistency. Cheek-by-jowl with an ascetic opening for chorus (the Hebrews’ lament), elevated sentiments for Samson and dignified hostility by the Philistine High Priest, there flourishes a frankly lascivious Delilah. In the opera’s early days one way of downplaying this erotic imbalance was to offer the work as a concert piece, which happened first on the Continent, then later in the United States and England.

Samson’s American premiere as a theater piece took place in New Orleans in 1893, followed two years later by a production at the Metropolitan Opera in which Francesco Tamagno—creator of the title role in Verdi’s Otello—sang Samson. The incident, somehow, was largely ignored. Not until a couple of decades later (opening night of the 1915-16 season) did this opera revisit the same theater with a duo that would establish it as a favorite for many years: Enrico Caruso and Margaret Matzenauer. (In the excitement, memories of some eloquent performances in New York at Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House during the seasons of 1908 and 1909 tended to be forgotten.) From then on the score became a frequent—if not constant—visitor to the major opera houses of this country.

Both leading roles are plums for charismatic vocalists, whose presence can raise a dangerously static opera to the near heights. Since the days of Caruso and Charles Dalmorès, Hammerstein’s protagonist, almost every great dramatic tenor in this country has sung Samson. The darker-voiced Delilahs (the genre for whom Saint-Saëns created the part) have included Jeanne Gerville-Réache, Louise Homer, and Karin Branzell. More recently, higher mezzos singing the role with success have included Risë Stevens, Rita Gorr, Grace Bumbry, Elena Obraztsova, Shirley Verrett, and Marilyn Horne.

Samson differs strikingly from its grand opera ancestors in one important respect: it is brief, concentrated, and to the point. Once the statuesque choral laments at the start are out of the way, the work maintains a notable command of pacing. Closely linked to this asset is the opera’s overall sense of intensity: unflagging, commanding, eloquent. And the twin goals of sonic and architectural authority have been skillfully achieved. Many are the examples of Saint-Saëns’s phenomenal command of long melodic line and dynamic flux. Together with these vaulting passages have come marvelously tailored details. Indeed that wonderful switch from B minor, the persistently gloomy key of the oppressed Israelites that starts the opera, to the heroic, wide-open tonality of E-flat major as Samson commands his brethren to shed their discouragement typifies the composer’s mastery of theatrical color that will grow, hardly ever receding, until the close of the opera.

This abundance of expressive nuance lends itself almost from the start to intensity of characterization. Samson’s opening phrase, “Arrêtez, mes frères!,” possesses a sound at once reassuring, majestic, and bold. Then, more hymn-like but still impulsive, comes his command to the Israelites to kneel before their Lord . . . broken by the entrance of the Philistine commander, Abimélech. Here, in a momentary lapse, the musical characterization becomes as rigid and dull as the man himself (a literal device out of joint in the theater). But dramatic interest is revived by Samson’s defiance of Abimélech’s pomposity, thrillingly underscored by upward runs in the strings against solemnly descending brasses, suggesting militant angels that form the legions of God. The reappearance of this figure toward the very end of the work, just before the destruction of the temple, will mark one of the supremely compelling moments in French opera.

The rest of the opening act marches proudly forward. Abimélech is slain in no time at all; the High Priest enters with his solo cursing the race of Israelites. An argument might be made that Saint-Saëns was here too concerned with rhythmical variety at the expense of vocal directness, but the reservation is a minor one. The High Priest having made his point and departed, the prevalent musical anger yields—in a superbly effective transition—to the luminous entrance of the Philistine priestesses and the first appearance of Dalila (Delilah), who rings the bell right off with one of the most evocative, beautiful pair of phrases in the opera, “Je viens célébrer la victoire” and that gorgeous declaration, “Doux est le muguet perfume.” In the course of the opera, three celebrated, full-length arias for Delilah will follow that bit about the muguet (lily-of-the-valley), every one of them more familiar to operatic audiences than the melody I have cited.

A dance of the priestesses follows—conventional but attractive—in which Delilah joins; then an old basso-priest of the Israelites, held over from oratorio style at its most weighty, does some wide moralizing. He cannot, however, spoil the gloriously evocative close to Act I, Delilah’s “Printemps qui commence.”

Yet no matter now effective the first act of Samson et Dalila, it is the second—limited to the three major voices of the cast—that established the score as memorable. First, in the orchestra, an atmospheric evocation of the night sky, coupled with intimations of the sexual exchange toward which the act builds. There follows Delilah’s invocation to the power of love as a seductive weapon, “Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse.”

A powerful duo follows for Delilah and the High Priest, who has come to help plot Samson’s destruction. This yields to that spell-binding moment where Delilah, once more alone, awaits the hero. Here the musical eroticism resumes: a wonderfully undulating figure for clarinets in their low, darker (chalumeau) register, with brooding, chesty passages for Delilah herself.

She withdraws momentarily and we have the agitated entrance of Samson, then the beautiful, voluptuous resolution of his troubled mood upon the sudden re-entrance of Delilah to woodwinds and harp.

The remainder of this act—the high point of the opera—springs from a constantly shifting interchange that culminates—so naturally and inevitably when heard at full performance—in Delilah’s famous “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart at they sweet voice”). The climactic tone is taken not by the Philistine beauty but impetuously by Samson, as he exclaims “Delilah! Delilah! Je t’aime!,” a theatrical miracle.

From here until curtain, the second act moves with supreme dramatic force. Samson, dismayed at Delilah’s insistence on learning the secret of his strength, resists. Delilah, in turn, grows incensed and reproachful. Topping this conflict comes the outbreak of the storm. Above it resounds the magnificently scornful B flat hurled by Delilah; “Lâche!” (“Coward!”). Then , after an electrifying and silent reconciliation of the lovers and their flight into Delilah’s house, the orchestra takes over, underlining symphonically the return of the High Priest with a group of armored men. This passage has struck some critics as too extended. Yet the close of the act, marked by the hero’s cry from offstage, “Trahison!” (“Betrayed!”), remains triumphant.

The opening of the next act—Samson blinded, at the wheel of the Gaza prison yard—is not only subdued (dramatically right) but also somewhat pedestrian and non-theatrical. The lapse soon passes. With no break in orchestral continuity, the scene changes to the temple, where Samson’s downfall is to be celebrated. Sexuality, in various guises, here determines the music; a fragrantly decadent chorus of the Philistine worshipers soon gives way to the celebrated Bacchanale.

After this orgy, the opera builds toward a truly imposing climax. First comes the High Priest’s sardonic welcome as the sightless hero, guided by a child, enters the temple. And then a series of brilliant musical taunts, poisonous reminiscences from Delilah, burlesquing former love themes and jesting malevolently of things past, as she in turn welcomes Samson. This is followed by an evocative, commanding duo for the woman and the Priest, sung in canon, honoring the Philistine god Dagon.

From this grows an associated, dance-like tune taken up by the chorus against wild, inflammatory vocal runs by Delilah, which leads in turn to a sudden, incredibly stable passage of grandeur, obliterating all the physical aspects of the scene that have dominated until now. The orchestral evocation of wings—first heard in Samson’s dominant solo of Act I—returns as the hero, standing between two massive pillars of the temple, achieves through spiritual rehabilitation the brief return of strength that causes the building to fall. And with the opera’s climax comes the tenor’s last, soaringly monumental top tone.

I have concentrated on the music rather than the text because the drama is straightforward and uncomplicated, a biblical tale presented traditionally and with directness (albeit with certain trade-magazine overtones). It is the score by Saint-Saëns that remains worthy of attention. No matter if at times triumphant major tonalities suggest 19th-century Paris rather than near-Asiatic regions of the past. Few operas are without their challenges to logic. In the cast of Samson, the sum total is one of commanding vocal line poised on orchestral sonorities that stimulate almost constantly.

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