Samson and Delilah, Opera by Camille Saint-Saëns
Camille Saint-Saëns is not a name one immediately associates with opera. Indeed, the composer, perhaps best known for his musical suite, Carnival of the Animals, had intended Samson and Delilah (Samson et Dalila) to be an oratorio. It was thanks to the encouragement of his librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire, that the work was given the full dramatic treatment the tale’s two protagonists deserved.
Saint-Saëns also had another champion in Franz Liszt. Opera houses in Saint-Saëns' native Paris baulked at the idea of staging a story from the Bible. Liszt, who had been central to the musical life of Weimar for decades, ensured that Samson and Delilah would find a city to produce it. After a lengthy gestation, the opera was finally premiered on 2 December 1877 at the Grand Ducal Court Theatre, the site of the Deutsche Nationaltheater und Staatskapelle Weimar today.
After all conventional means have failed of containing the Israelites’ champion Samson, the High Priest of the Philistines enlists the charms of Dalila to undo their enemy. Samson cannot resist her. Dalila discovers the secret of his legendary strength and Samson is finally defeated, blinded and imprisoned. But when he is brought to the Philistines’ temple, Samson’s faith in God grants him the means to destroy his captors.
A work that is seen all too infrequently, audiences at Vienna State Opera have nonetheless been fortunate to enjoy this superb piece before and will be eagerly looking forward to Samson and Delilah’s return this season. The oriental-flavoured Danse Bacchanale that precedes the Philistines’ destruction will be familiar to many music lovers; it is often performed in concert outside the opera. Better still, however, is the intensity of the exchanges between the opera’s two key characters, in particular Dalila’s intoxicating aria-duet with Samson, “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix”, with which she seals his fate.