Wednesday, April 25, 2012



A carnival of animal lusts, a feast of exoticism and eroticism, and it is based on the Bible (Judges chapter 16). The setting is the Gaza strip, which brings lascivious thoughts to mind. The same endless battle is taking place as nowadays: Philistines (Palestinians) versus Israelites (Israelis).

Of his seven operas this is the one that finally caught on; but his Henri VIII has had its moments.

Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns  (1835-1921)
Samson (Jon Vickers)  Dalila (Shirley Verrett)  Abimelech (John Tomlinson) Hebrew  Elder (Gwynne Howell) Royal Opera House  Orchestra and Chorus (Colin Davis)   (1981)

This amazing composer (earliest composition dated 1839) and precocious performer (first public performance at 5, and after a concert at 10 he offered to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory) had much more than music in his prolific brain (which was teeming with mathematics and every branch of science, including occultism). “He knows everything but lacks inexperience”, said his friend Hector Berlioz.

Act 1  A public square in the city of Gaza in Palestine, near the temple of the god Dagon.
[1] A crowd of Israelite men and women are imploring God to have pity on them, as their towns are being destroyed by Gentiles (Philistines, in this case). Is he no longer the God who liberated their tribes from Egypt? Has he forgotten the Holy Covenant they made with him at Mount Sinai? Samson asks them to cease their wailing and understand that he is speaking for God and promising their liberation. But they retort that they have no weapons.
They eventually accept that their salvation will come from God through Samson.
[2] Abimelech, the governor of Gaza (‘satrap’, Persian, anachronism) enters with his guards, to collect the tribute, and mocks the Israelites for relying on their deaf god, who is inferior to Dagon. Samson is inspired by a vision of angels, and exhorts the Israelites to break the chain and rise up against their oppressors, as the power of God is unleashed. Abimelech attacks Samson with his sword, but the hero slays him. In the confusion the Israelites depart.
[3] The High Priest of Dagon finds Abimelech dead, and he urges the Philistines to pursue the slaves, but they show reluctance.
[4] A messenger  reports that the escapees are destroying the harvest.
The High Priest curses Israel, and the Philistines make a tactical retreat to the mountains.
[5] The Hebrew elders of Israel praise God in a hymn of joy for his deliverance; one elder acknowledges God smote them in his wrath, but now blesses their weapons.
[6] Samson has returned with his troops, and from the temple of Dagon a group of Philistine maidens emerges, led by Dalila; she addresses Samson and  seeks to revive the love that they once shared; she invites him back to her home in the Valley of Sorek; she promises sweet delights. Samson struggles to keep the ardent flame extinguished; the venerable elder encourages him.
[7] The priestesses dance enticingly; Dalila makes erotic assaults on Samson’s resistance.

Act 2   Dalila’s residence at nightfall
[1]  Dalila invokes the power of love (Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse!) as she awaits Samson.
[2] The High Priest has come from his refuge in the mountains; he offers her gold for betraying the rebel, but she simply desires revenge; she hates Samson. The priest wants her to uncover the secret of his strength; he will return later with his armed guards.
[3] Lightning indicates that a storm is brewing. Samson arrives, remorseful and indecisive. Dalila welcomes him with open arms but with a deceptive heart. In their frenzied exchanges Samson admits that he loves her, though he really should not, as God has chosen him to lead his people.
She sings of her love (Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix comme s’ouvrent les fleurs aux baisers de l’aurore. My heart opens to your voice as flowers open to the kisses of the dawn.) and his repeated response is: Dalila, je t’aime.
[4] Amid lightning and thunder she urges him to prove his love for her by revealing the secret of his strength. He prays for God’s assistance; she accuses him of cowardice. He submits, and the Philistines seize him. (We are not  shown the blinding and shearing.)

Act 3  (Samson brings down the house)
A prison at Gaza: Samson is sightless and hairless, and is turning a large millstone, like a donkey.
Chorus of Hebrew captives behind the scenes.
[1]  Samson expresses his misery and remorse (Vois ma misère, hélas! vois ma détresse! Pitié, Seigneur! pitié pour ma faiblesse! J’ai détourné mes pas de ton chemin: bientôt de moi tu retiras ta main.) His people ask why he has done this to his brethren. They accuse him, their divinely chosen leader, of selling them to pay for the favours of a woman.  He prays that God, whose hand has struck him down, will save the people from the fury of their enemies. Philistines come and take Samson away.
[2] Inside the temple of Dagon (there should be a large statue of this god, and two pillars in the centre, holding up  the roof). The high priest is present. Dalila enters with young women carrying wine-cups. The throng in the temple greets the dawn, and the rising sun.
Dance (orgiastic bacchanalia)
[3] Samson enters, led by a child. The High priest welcomes him mockingly and offers him a cup of hydromel (water and honey); being a Nazirite and under vows of abstinence, Samson would not drink alcohol. The Philistines urge him to drink to Dalila and get drunk,to ease his pain. Samson declares that his soul is sick unto death, and he asks his Lord to allow him to accomplish his destiny.
[4] Dalila spitefully reminds him of their previous encounter, a night of passion (ivresses, caresses); it was then she extracted his (hairy!) secret  from him. and now she has achieved vengeance for herself, her god, and her people (who all second her motion). Samson (aside) regrets having profaned love by giving it to this woman.
[5] The high priest sarcastically suggests that Samson should return to her and woo her tenderly. He also (insincerely) invokes Yahweh (the text has the inadmissible form Jéhovah) to show mercy and give light back to the eyes of his servant; if he does so, the priest will worship him; if not, he will scorn him. For his part, Samson appeals to the God of Israel to silence this blasphemer  by restoring his sight and strength for an instant. The populace exclaim that they are not afraid of Samson’s raging, and they know he will not regain his vision.
[6] The priest calls Dalila to the sacrificial ceremony, pouring out libations of wine to Dagon. The first outpouring causes the sacred flame to flare up and then disappear; at the third invocation, after the people had given glory to Dagon and requested a sign of his presence, the fire reappears.
[7] The priest invites Samson to kneel and make a drink-offering to “Dagon, le dieu redoutable”; and he tells the boy to guide Samson to the middle of the temple where all can see him. Samson implores the Lord to inspire him, and he tells the lad to lead him to the two marble pillars. The Philistines raise their hymn of glory to Dagon. Samson prays thus: “Remember your servant, whom they have deprived of the light; Lord, deign for an instant to give me back my former strength, that I with you may avenge myself, O God, by crushing them in this place.” And the walls came tumbling down.

STORYLINE (pictures) 

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