Online opera guide and synopsis to Saint-Saens’ SAMSON ET DALILA
Samson et Dalila is one of the 5 greatest works of French opera literature. Three immortal arias for mezzo-soprano, the overwhelming Bacchanale, an attractive tenor role and the great choirs leave lasting impressions. The second act shows the greatest emotions and passions.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Danse des Prêtresses de Dagon (Ballet)
♪ Il faut, pour assouvir ma haine (Hate duet)
♪ Vois Ma Misère, Hélas ! Vois Ma Détresse ! (Treadmill aria)
♪ Bacchanale (Ballet)
Ferdinand Lemaire, based on the biblical story of Samson and Dalila from the Book of Judges.
The main roles
Dalila, High Priestess of the Philistines (mezzo-soprano) - Abimelech, Satrap of Gaza (bass) - High Priest, Priest of the Philistines (bass) - Samson, Judge of the Hebrews (tenor)
DG, Placido Domingo, Waltraud Meier, Alain Fondary conducted by Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra-Bastille, Paris.
The difficult history of origins
Originally Saint-Saens and the poet Ferdinand Lemaire planned to set the biblical story of Samson and Dalila to music as an oratorio. Lemaire later suggested to make an opera out of the exciting material. After initial hesitation, the 24 years old Saint-Saens started to write the first piece of the opera in 1859. The setting to music was very slow and only 8 years later he showed some friends in a private circle the first composed scenes, which responded extremely reservedly. In retrospect, this is not surprising as this biblical theme contrasted strongly with the then dominant Meyerbeer grand opéra and Offenbach’s opéra comique. Saint-Saens nevertheless decided to continue working, but could not persuade a French stage to perform the completed work. He was a composer discredited as a “Wagnerian”. Another three years later his friend and mentor Franz Liszt promised to perform the work at his court opera in Weimar. But the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War thwarted the plan. Saint-Saens managed to bring a concert performance of the first act to a French theatre, but the criticism of melody and harmony was devastating. In 1877 Liszt could keep his promise, he dared to premiere the opera in Weimar in German translation. The performance was a triumph for the now 42-year-old, which was also noted in Paris with a proudly swollen breast of patriotism. However, it was to take 13 more years before a French premiere took place in Rouen.
The biblical and historical background
Those interested will find a brief description of the background in this section, but knowledge of it is not necessary for understanding the opera.
The story of Samson and Dalila is taken from the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Tanach, which largely (39 of 46 books) corresponds to the Christian Old Testament. The writings are grouped in 3 parts, the first two parts are arranged chronologically. The first part (the so-called Torah) describes the history of the prophet Moses, the second part (the so-called Nevi’im) the history of other prophets and the Jewish people of the time after Moses. From this part comes the story of Samson and Delilah, more precisely from the Book of Judges. The judges of that time were not only judges of justice, but political and military leaders. Behind all the judges’ stories in this book was always the same dramaturgical sequence: first the apostasy of the Jews from the God Yahweh, then the oppression by foreign peoples, followed by the cry for help to Yahweh and finally the salvation by the judge. Samson was one of the most important judges and his physical powers were extraordinary.
The main opponents of the Jews, the Philistines, were probably immigrant seafaring peoples from the northern Mediterranean (possibly Crete). They became native to Palestine and gave the region its name. The Jews tried to conquer the territories of present-day Israel, but the area around Gaza could be held by the Philistines for a long time.
The music of “Samson et Dalila”
“Samson et Dalila” is the only one of Saint-Saens’ 16 operas that has made it into the repertoire. Saint-Saens was an immensely educated and skilled musician, he was recognized early on as a child prodigy comparted toMozart, his technical and compositional resources gave him the opportunity to give all his operas their own style. This strategy did not pay off in the end, because almost all his operas were forgotten, Berlioz said mockingly “He knows everything but lacks inexperience” (He knows everything but lacks inexperience).
What makes the music of “Samson et Dalila” special?
The use of recurring motifs is striking. “Leitmotiv” would be the wrong word, because they are rather melodies and “merely” have a memory function, so they are not developed further in the Wagnerian sense. Nevertheless, Saint-Saens was notorious in France as “Wagnerian”, which in the turbulent times of the Franco-German wars came close to an artistic death sentence.
Another characteristic of the work is that the first and third acts have a strong oratorio character with static religious scenes and choruses, and make use of many “ancient” forms such as fugues and Gregorian choruses. The choir was given a very important role by the original planning of the work as an oratorio. In the first and third act it even plays a leading role, alternating solo and choral parts.
Last but not least, the many orientalisms are also a characteristic of this opera. Saint-Saens is to be credited for treating this aspect with great mastery. Saint-Saens often spent winter months in Algiers, where did some studies for “Samson et Dalila”. You will find a nice insight into this in the commentary on the Bacchanale of the third act further below.
One of the great mezzo-soprano roles
Saint-Saens wrote no less than three great, immortal arias for the role of Dalila (Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse; Mon coeur ouvre à ta voix; Printemps qui commence). When Saint-Saens began composing in 1859, he wanted to write this role for the famous Mezzosoprano Pauline Viardot-García, one of the great singers of the 19th century, who was forty years old at that time. But when he finished the work in 1877, the role came too late for her.
SAMSON ET DELILA ACT I
Synopsis: A public square in the city of Gaza in Palestine, twelve hundred years before Christ. Hebrew people pray to God to hear them in the distress of the Philistine occupation.
The choir is introduced by a short prelude. Its beginning is very unusual, one hears three wind tones one after the other, they should probably imitate the sound of a historical instrument. After undulating violin sounds, which remind some listeners of the prelude to the Rhinegold, the choir begins with ecclesiastical sounds. After about 7 minutes the great fugue “Nous avons vu nos cités reversées” begins. The listener imagines himself in an oratorio.
Dieu d’Israël ! Ecoute la prière – Chung
Samson gives the people back their faith
Synopsis: Samson is among them and turns to them with the request to resist. The crowd will not follow him, lacking faith and weapons. But Samson manages to strengthen their faith in God and their resistance against the Philistines.
Samson convinces his people with a grand gesture. The enthusiastic crowd responds in a beautiful choral piece, which is led in two voices and is accompanied by a multi-layered orchestral accompaniment.
We listen in the role of Samson Placido Domingo. He is perhaps the greatest Samson in recording history. The role was tailored to his voice, it is composed in the middle register and requires great endurance. His rich and opulent voice and his endurance let the power and beauty of Samson blossom.
L’as-tu donc oublié … Malheureux, taisez-vous! – Domingo
Abimelech mocks the God of the Jews
Synopsis: Abimelech appears, followed by Philistine arriors and soldiers. He mocks the cowardly and powerless God of the slaves, who was subjugated by their god Dagon, who led their army of the Philistines into the victorious battle against the Jews.
Saint-Saens shows his sympathies with his music. Abimelech’s music is stilted and strangely orchestrated, deep winds and strings draw an arrogant and smug leader of the Philistines.
Qui donc élève ici la voix? – Thau
Samson kills the leader of the Philistines
Synopsis: Samson rises and proclaims the revenge of the Hebrew gods and the Jewish people against the oppressors. Euphorically the people tune in. Abimelech draws his sword and dashes on Samson to slay him. Samson snatches his sword away and strikes him down.
With a solemn hymn “Israel, rompe ta chaine” (“Israel break your chains”) Samson enthuses the masses and they join in the hymn.
C’est toi que sa bouche invective – Domingo
The dramatic appearance of the high priest
Synopsis: The guards are retreating. The head priest appears and berates their cowardice. The Jews escape and start an uprising. The head priest curses the revolting people and their leader Samson.
Saint-Saens draws a dramatic appearance of the high priest. The low strings play a military motif, which becomes one of the important leitmotifs of the opera.
Seigneur ! la troupe furieuse … Maudite à jamais soit a race – Weikl
Synopsis: A new day begins. The Jews were able to defeat the oppressors and celebrate their liberation.
A beautiful music describes the sunrise. Then we hear the pious singing of the ancient Hebrews in the style of a Gregorian chant or a psalm chant of a synagogue.
Hymne de joie, hymne de délivrance – Barenboim
The heavenly chorus of the priestesses
Synopsis: The gates of Dagon Temple open. Dalila appears, accompanied by the Priestesses.
The Chorus of the Philistine priestesses describes the beauty and purity of nature. The music is sweet and innocent and contrasts with the archaic chorus of the Hebrews that from the previous scene.
Voici le printemps nous portant des fleurs – Davis
The old Hebrew warns Samson of Delila’s seduction – the great trio
Synopsis: Dalila turns to Samson, who observes the ceremony with fascination. Seductively she ensnares him and pays homage to him. Despite the warnings of an old Hebrew, Samson cannot resist Dalila’s temptations.
Samson musical reaction to Delila’s appearance are chromatic steps, which show his insecurity. More and more he tunes into Dalila’s singing voice and gets into her undertow. Independently of this, the bass completes this beautiful polyphonic trio, which ends in a beautiful euphony.
Je viens célébrer la victoire – Ludwig / King / Kogel
The trio became famous in the twenties with a legendary recording by Enrico Caruso.
Je viens célébrer la victoire – Caruso / Homer /Journet
The dance of the priestesses
Synopsis: Priesterinnen tanzen mit Blumengirlanden für Samson.
The music bewitches with sensual orientalisms.
Danse des Prêtresses de Dagon
Synopsis: Once again Dalila conjures up her love and longing for the hero. Seductively she enters the stairs to the temple and leaves the agitated Samson behind.
In this performance aria we do not hear the evil Dalila, eaten up by revenge, but the young and honest woman singing about the beauty of nature. Saint-Saens writes a beautiful accompaniment with long chords that reveals the organ composer.
We hear Maria Callas, who makes the beautiful colours of this aria sound.
Printemps qui commence – Callas
Shirley Verrett’s interpretation is opulent, a light vibrato gives the voice a sensual and erotic touch.
Printemps qui commence – Verrett
SAMSON ET DALILA ACT II
Dalila’s great prayer to the God of love
Synopsis: Dalila knows that Samson is pining for her and wants to see him as a slave at her feet. So far he could escape again and again.
A restless introduction shows Dalila’s agitation, revenge is her goal. The challenge of this aria is to keep the beautiful prayer to the God of Love feminine, despite the vengeful text (“he is my slave”; “pour the poison in his veins”) and the deep and dark tonal range of this aria.
None could make the supplication as insistent as Maria Callas.
Samson, recherchant ma présence … Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse! – Maria Callas
The highpriest appears
Synopsis: The head priest appears and admonishes her to reveal the secret of Samson’s strength.
The high priest appears, accompanied by his leitmotif.
J’ai gravi la montagne!! … Notre sort t’est connu – Meier / Ramey
The fiery hate duet
Synopsis: Dalila tells that he has already fled her questions three times, but she believes to defeat him this night. The highpriest promises her wealth, but Dalila renounces, the stilling of her hatred is her reward enough. Together they swear revenge on Samson and the highpriest leaves the place.
A great, classic hate duet that is filled with passion and fire and ends with a joint vow of revenge.
Il faut, pour assouvir ma haine – Meier / Ramey
Synopsis: Dalila is not sure, wether her spell still works on Samson.
Saint-Saens wrote a nice and short aria.
Se pourrait-il que sur son coeur
Samson appears full of doubt
Synopsis: Samson appears. He is full of doubt, he has come to say his last farewell and at the same time loving her. Dalila ensnares him, but Samson rejects her.
The appearance of Samson shows his insecurity. During her performance the music changes to major and soon she tries to win Samson over with long dolce sung lines (Samson, ô toi! Mon bien aimé, pourquoi) and the piece develops into a passionate duet.
En ces lieux, malgré moi, m’ont ramené mes pas – Domingo / Meier
Synopsis: Salila tries to arous pity, but Samson wants to stay strong. And yet he confesses his love to her.
Qu’importe à mon coeur désolé
The great seduction scene – Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix
Synopsis: Dalila now sees her chance and promises him ecstasy. Samson surrenders.
Saint-Saens has written no less than three great, immortal arias for the role of Dalila. This aria is one of the most beautiful and seductive arias from the entire opera repertoire.
Dalila wants to seduce Samson for reasons of state, but one senses that there is more behind her seductive promises. She may not be in love with Samson, but she still has feelings for him. She tries to seduce Samson with her warm, erotic voice. The orchestra’s accompaniment is delicate, sometimes playful, and completely dispenses with brass and percussion instruments.
Saint-Saens’ expression markings are “dolcissimo e cantabile”. Her voice may nevertheless be radiant. The voice and the orchestra shine in a luminous major. The orchestra plays swelling and declining chords imitating a soft, billowing breeze, an allegory for beauty and seduction.
But Dalila has not yet reached her final objective. She must discover Samson’s secret. Sweetly, she begges Samson to speak to her to dry her tears. The aria is written in a pleasant tessitura, in which the singer can present her most beautiful colours. The tone becomes more urgent and she sings twice the ecstatic “versez moi l’ivresse” (“fill me with rapture”) with which she wants to win Samson. A beautiful clarinet passage takes up the theme painfully sweetly. At the end Samson surrenders, the piece becomes a duet and he languishes several times “Dalila, je t’aime”.
We hear this aria in two interpretations.
See a great clip from a TV version with Shirley Verrett.
Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix – Verrett
Elina Garanca has a seductive, rather bright mezzo-soprano who shines beautifully in this aria.
Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix – Garanca
Dalila reveals the secret
Synopsis: Flatteringly, Dalila tries to elicit his secret from him, but Samson questions her intentions. Tantalized, she threatens to kill herself. Samson now follows her into the bedroom. A little later she calls the guards, who arrest Samson. Triumphantly, she holds up Samson’s braid, which she has cut off.
Mais ! non ! que dis-je ? hélas, la triste Dalila (Dalila, Samson)
SAMSON ET DALILA ACT III
Samsons great millstone scene
Synopsis: In the dungeons at Gaza. Samson is sitting at a millstone. With the loss of his hair his powers have left him. The Philistines have burned out his eyes and he has to do slave labour. From outside he hears the lamentations of the Hebrews who have lost their freedom because of Samson, who betrayed them for a woman. Samson begs God to help, he is ready to sacrifice his life for it.
Hopefulness and tragedy determine the scene in which Samson turns the millstone in the dungeon.
Vois Ma Misère, Hélas ! Vois Ma Détresse ! – Domingo
Georges Thill was probably the best French tenor of the last century. This excerpt is one of his best recordings.
Vois Ma Misère, Hélas ! Vois Ma Détresse ! – Thill
Synopsis: The high priest is in the temple with the Philistines. Dalila appears solemnly with the priestesses.
Again a heavenly women’s choir singing about untouched nature.
L’aube Qui Blanchit Déjà Les Coteaux
The famous Bacchanale – oriental sounds
Synopsis: An orgiastic dance opens the victory ceremony.
Saint-Saens wrote with the Bacchanale a ballet as an unleashed erotic painting. Cheered on by the energetic music, the guests begin their ecstatic dance.
The music is written in Phrygian major (the Jihaz), a scale commonly used in oriental music. The ballet begins with an introduction by the oboe. Saint-Saens imitated half a dozen old Arabic instruments in the Bacchanale (and in the whole opera). The oboe introduction recalls the sound of a shawm, the harp imitates a qunan, and the pizzicato strings imitate an oude, a lute-like guitar with a folded neck plucked with a pick.
In a second part, the music becomes waltz-like European, and then returns to the oriental world of the first part.
The Bacchanale is remotely reminiscent of the Venusberg scene from Tannhäuser and was certainly also an inspiration for Strauss’ “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome.
Hear and see a great Bacchanale in a production of the Met.
Bacchanale – Levine
Synopsis: The blind Samson is led into the hall by a child, his humiliation is to become a spectacle for the Philistines. Triumphant and sneering, Dalila demands that Samson repeat his love wish.
Laisse-moi prendre ta main – Borodina / Cura
Synopsis: The head priest makes fun of Samson’s God. Samson calls on his god to punish the blasphemers or to give him back his power, which causes laughter from the Philistines.
This piece became a mixture of different styles. We can hear church choirs, fugues, comic passages and hymns, the arbitrariness of the styles corresponds to the arbitrariness and superficiality of the religion of the Philistines.
Gloire à Dagon vainqueur – Domingo / Fondary / Meier
The final «coup de théatre»
Synopsis: They demand Samson to kneels before Dagon in the middle of the temple. Samson asks the child to lead him to the pillars. He begs Jehovah to give him back his strength. When he gets there he tears at the columns and the temple collapses and crushing himself and his enemies..
Guidez Ses Pas Vers Le Milieu Du Temple
DG, Placido Domingo, Waltraud Meier, Alain Fondary under the direction of Myung-Whun Chung and the orchestra and choir of the opéra-bastille, Paris.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on SAMSON ET DELILA by Camille Saint-Saens.