Saturday, May 10, 2008

Samson and Delilah

It is an opera which is nothing short of spectacular. I have never seen Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah performed, but during many a youthful road trip, I would listen to Maria Callas' rendition of Mon coeur s'ouvre à la voix on an old cassette tape, with several of her other arias, over and over again. It is among the most exquisite love songs ever written, especially when Maria sings it with tears in her voice.

Mon coeur s'ouvre à la voix,
comme s'ouvrent les fleurs
Aux baiser de l'aurore!
Mais, ô mon bienaimé,

pour mieux sécher mes pleurs,

Que ta voix parle encore!

Dis-moi qu'à Dalila

tu reviens pour jamais,

Redis à ma tendresse

Les serments d'autrefois,
ces serments que j'aimais!
Ah! réponds à ma tendresse!

Verse-moi, verse-moi l'ivresse.

Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saëns is rather risqué even for an opera, in spite of (or maybe because of) being taken directly from Sacred Scripture. One moral, among the many that can be gleaned from the story, is quite obviously that lust can get a person into big trouble; the getting out of trouble can require great heroism and self-sacrifice. Samson is delivered only by his own death; by dying he redeems himself and liberates his people.

As one article explains:
"Samson and Delilah" is in three Acts, and the libretto has so faithfully followed the Bible story that there is no need to outline the text. The music of the first Act is in the solid and dignified style of the oratorio, suggestive of Handel and Bach; in the second Act the chief feature is the rich, passionate colouring; while in the third no one can fail to remark that Oriental flavour, displayed mainly in rhythm and interval, which is so characteristic of the composer. There are many lovely melodies in the work, and the orchestration is remarkably fine.
Saint-Saëns originally thought of making Samson and Delilah into an oratorio rather than an opera, but adding depth to the character of Delilah through the music created a drama rather than a sacred piece. According to one scholar:

Delilah’s music also makes a strong argument for Samson as opera. It is fluid, lush, romantic and brilliantly orchestrated with a touch of fantasy and worldly sensuality....Consider “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”, the most famous excerpt from the work and Delilah’s main aria. The vocal line at the climax of the aria (“Ah! Réponds à ma tendresse”, “Ah! Respond to my tenderness”) is highly chromatic, spiraling downward like the tendrils of a tropical plant. It is, in fact, closely related to Carmen’s habanera and provides much the same dramatic purpose: the seduction of the leading man.

I must confess to liking the film by Cecil B. DeMille, in spite of the over-the-top acting. Hedy Lamar is in rare form as the sultry temptress, and she and Victor Mature have great chemistry. It is corny but enjoyable, as long as one is not expecting Shakespeare.


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