Samson et Dalila: not even God could have saved this opera’s limitations
A story of betrayal and unfulfilled expectations: romantically, religiously, and musically.
The opera Samson and Delilah premiered last Friday, 10/20/2017 at 8:00 pm at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House in the AT&T Performing Arts Center, located in 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas, 75201. The opera, in three-acts, was created by the French romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns, and was returning to Dallas for a third time, after previous presentations in 1964 and 1971. The performance featured Olga Borodina as Delilah and Clifton Forbis as Samson, with the conduction of Emmanuel Villaume.
Operas containing biblical stories were taboo in XIX century France, so Samson and Delilah was first played in Germany, becoming relatively popular since then.
The plot outlines the turbulent relationship between Samson –a Jew- and Delilah –a philistine-, the infamous couple from the Old Testament. They do not resemble the type of love embodied by Romeo and Juliet, being members from enemy castes that fall in love, a recurrent theme since Purgatory’s Canto VI depiction of the Montecchi and the Cappelletti.
The opera couldn’t really maintain all the expectations laid down during the overture, which welcomes such an intensity and passion that makes it hard for the rest of the opera to keep up, hence falling short in comparison. Most of the opera does not reach the height of other works, such as Danse Macabre, from Saint-Saëns.
As outlined previously, the opera does not recover after its emphatic introduction. However, it has some praiseworthy tunes, such as a bacchanale, and a couple of commendable arias, among which Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix (Softly awakes my heart) resulted particularly appealing to the audience.
Toward the opera’s resolution, particularly during the third act, most of the scenes are filled with recurrent, almost recursive, tunes, as if Saint-Saëns had ran out of inspiration by then. At this juncture, we have more dancing than singing and the opera becomes a symphony, which takes away from the dramatic overtone the plot was building up to.
Conversely, the scenography and visual effects were handled masterfully. The opera’s climax, the falling of the temple, was able to elicit shocking responses and genuine reactions within the audience. Also, the third act presented a few scenes in where Samson sings while the rest of the cast stands idly, thus making him a greater focus of attention. This technique was not only a clever of enhancing the plot’s message but it was an absolute visual success. Most of such scenes were so perfectly executed that they seemed Renaissance paintings, a true photographic achievement and an impressive job by choreographer Nycole Ray, make-up designer Dawn Rivard, costume designer Carrie Robbins, and set designer Peter Dean Beck.
Even though the opera was originally written in French by Ferdinand Lemaire, as it was presented to an American audience, it featured English subtitles. Such subtitles made sure to capitalize any references to God, either in name or through personal pronouns; making him the great, albeit hidden, protagonist. Nonetheless, this opera wasn’t really about Samson, Dagon, love, or God for that matter, but about Delilah, a persuasive and pragmatic woman.
Samson’s most impressive biblical actions get omitted in the opera. And the performance makes clear how extraordinary masculine strength, such as in the cases of Samson and Hercules, can only be tamed by feminine seductiveness.