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8.110063-64 - SAINT-SAENS: Samson et Dalila (Paris Opera) (1946)
Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921): Samson et Dalila
"It is possible to be as much of a musician as Saint-Saens; it is impossible to be more of one!”
Franz Liszt 1866
In 1867 Saint-Saens began work on a new oratorio; the famous biblical story of Hebrews and Philistines, of love and betrayal, seemed to offer fine musical opportunities and it was not until his ideas were well developed that he was persuaded instead to turn the oratorio into an opera. Even then work continued only spasmodically, and it was 1875 before a concert version of Act I alone was given in Paris, to considerable critical disfavour. When it was completed the following year, the only musician to acclaim the new opera was the composer Franz Liszt, who immediately arranged for the world premiere to be staged at Weimar in Germany. Apathy still rampant in France, it was not performed there until 1890 (in Rouen) and in 1892 it finally reached the Paris Opera, where, as if by way of apology for its earlier neglect, it was presented over five hundred times during the following thirty years. Thank goodness the composer lived long enough to see its well-deserved success in his native city Concert performances in New York (1892) and London (1893 at Covent Garden) followed, and before long fully staged performances were given in many of the world's major opera houses.
Saint-Saens studied at the Paris Conservatoire from the age of thirteen. He showed prodigious virtuosity as a keyboard player, probably to the detriment of his early development as a composer; despite the disappointment of failing to win the coveted Prix de Rome, by the age of thirty he had many successful compositions to his credit. Sacred works, songs, orchestral, chamber and instrumental music all appealed to his talent, confirming the truth of his own bons mots that he could create music ''as an apple tree creates apples". Among the best loved of his compositions are five piano concertos, three symphonies (No, 3, with its important part for organ has achieved an enthusiastic following in recent years), small scale instrumental pieces (including Danse Macabre) and Le Carnaval des Animaux. But these are just a tiny part of his energetic output.
By nature temperamental and impulsive, at the age of 39 Saint-Saens married a young woman half his age, with disastrous emotional results. After their separation he became something of a recluse, but enjoyed loyal friendships with a close circle, including Gabriel Faure and his family. Continuing to compose, he also found fulfilment in travel and writing books and articles on a wide range of topics. Interests including astronomy, philosophy, fine arts and acoustics all absorbed him into a generous old age.
Saint-Saens died in Algiers, a venerable 86-year-old, having composed thirteen operas but known to posterity for only one - the initially rejected, but finally triumphant, Samson et Dalila.
What of his other operas, which have failed to survive in public favour? His first attempt at the genre in 1865 was Le timbre d'argent (first performed in 1877); later examples include the historical subjects of Etienne Marcel (1879), Henry VIII (1883) and Prosetpine (1887). His three last operas were composed for Garnier's delightful Grand Theatre in Monte Carlo; the single-act Helene (1904) was a vehicle for Nellie Melba, who spent time with the composer during the production. In her autobiography Melodies and Memories (Hamish Hamilton, 1925) she recalled.
Saint-Saens was one of the most amazingly youthful old men I have ever met, and he was still writing music of a vigour and freshness that he never surpassed. We used to trot about Monte Carlo together, he, usually rather taciturn but sometimes letting loose a volley of observations on music, opera and life in general... I saw him once at a dinner party being approached by a very effusive woman who was anxious to get him to come to her house. 'Cher maitre', she said coaxingly, 'will you not dine with me one evening next week?' 'I have no time" said Saint-Saens, brusquely. 'But could you not be very nice just for me?' she persisted. 'I don't want to be nice to you' he snapped. And there the matter ended.
For all its "vigour and freshness" Helene has survived no longer than any of the other operas. His last attempt was Dejanire, a tragedie Iyrique in four acts, first performed in 1911, but it, too, soon disappeared.
So it is on Samson et Dalila that Saint-Saens's reputation as an operatic composer rests. Never a great musical innovator, he belonged to an influential group of French composers who flourished during the second half of the nineteenth century, among them Berlioz, Gounod, Bizet, Faure, Lalo and Massenet. This opera well demonstrates his ability to create an atmosphere; much of the music has a "perfumed" quality which lends a potent exoticism to Dalila's and the Philistines' music The Bacchanale from Act III also presents a most vivid sound picture, one of the most memorable ballet sequences in any opera.
A quality which Saint-Saens's music also portrays most strikingly is heroism. Samson's great outbursts, notably the broken pride of the third act prison scene, are among the finest music for dramatic tenor in any French opera of the period. With such a developed sense of theatre, Saint-Saens had no need to be a greater innovator.
This recording of Samson et Dalila from 1946 was the first commercial version made on 78s and includes, (as few subsequent recorded versions have done), a full French cast and conductor backed by the forces of the National Opera in Paris. That, surely, would have pleased even the irascible Saint-Saens.
Acts I and III are set in Gaza and Act II in the Valley of Sorek during Old Testament times.
After a brief orchestral introduction, the curtain rises on a group of Hebrews kneeling in prayer for deliverance from their Philistine conquerors ( Dieu! Dieu d'IsraeI!). One among them, Samson, rises and calls for courage in their fight for freedom ( Arretez, o mes freres!). Inspired by his leadership, the Hebrews determine to follow Samson, calling on Jehovah for guidance. (Ah! Le souffle du Seigneur).
Abimelech, Satrap (Governor) of Gaza, tries to silence Samson and asserts his belief that the great god Dagon can compare with no other ( Qui donc eleve ici la voix?). Incensed, Samson rails against him and is attacked by Abimelech, who is himself mortally wounded. In the confusion Samson and the Hebrews escape, evading the worst of the Philistines' fury. The High Priest of Dagon swears to avenge the death and plans to use the beautiful Dalila to entrap the rebel leader  Maudite a jamais soit la race...). The Hebrews sing a hymn of joy and look forward to deliverance from their oppressors ( Hymne de joie, hymne de dilivrance...). Dalila enters and sings of her love for Samson, inviting him to follow her to the Valley of Sorek ( Je viens cilebrer la victoire..). Warned by an old Hebrew, Samson calls for protection from her enticing charms. The Priestesses of Dagon dance in front of the temple () and Dalila sings a seductive song, further testing Samson's self-control ( Printemps qui commence...).
After an atmospheric prelude (), Dalila is discovered in thoughtful mood, confident of her power over Samson ( Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse!). The High Priest arrives and reports the easy Hebrew victory over the Philistine forces. ( J'ai gravi la montagne...) On being offered gold to capture Samson, Dalila refuses it, telling the High Priest that she acts purely out of hatred of the Hebrews and for the love of her gods ( II faut, pour assouvir ma haine...). Together they determine to humble the proud Hebrew leader ( En ces lieux, malgre moi...).
Samson arrives to bid farewell to Dalila, ( Ah! cesse d'affliger mon coeur!) but is drawn instead to acknowledge his love for her, as she declares hers for him ( Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix..). Dalila's scheming continues as she pretends to doubt his love, while trying to discover the secret of his extraordinary strength. He refuses to tell her and she rushes off, followed reluctantly, yet all too eagerly, by Samson ( Mais!... non! que dis-je, helas!). Philistine soldiers who have lain in wait for their opportunity to trap Samson follow them, as he realises too late that he has been betrayed.
Samson is imprisoned, chained, blinded, with his hair - the source of his strength - shorn; he labours at turning a millstone. In the depths of despajr he offers his life as a sacrifice. His fellow Hebrew prisoners deplore their capture, all due to his infatutaion for Dalila  Vois ma misere, helas!). In the Temple of Dagon the Philistines are preparing a sacrifice ( L 'aube qui blanchit deja les coteaux ..). A rousing Bacchanale () is danced, after which Samson is brought into the Temple to be mocked by the High Priest and Dalila. ( Salut! Salut au juge d'Israel...) Samson now realises the full extent of her treachery as the Philistines jeer relentlessly at him ( L'ame triste jusqu'a la mart...). While the Philistines praise the god Dagon, Samson is led to the centre of the Temple, where he can be seen by them all. He stands between two pillars supporting the great vault and, summoning up all his old strength, calls for inspiration from God. As the shouts of praise to Dagon ring out, Samson rocks the pillars until the whole Temple crashes down, destroying everyone under the immense weight. He is finally avenged ( Gloire a Dagon vainqueur...).
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