On Saturday afternoon I paid my first visit to the Met Opera this season to see the new production of Samson et Dalila, the three act opera composed between 1867 and 1876 by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Though Saint-Saëns was already a well known composer by the time he commenced work on Samson et Dalila - this was his Op. 47 - neither he nor his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire had had much actual experience with opera. (Lemaire was, in fact, an amateur poet who had come to Saint-Saëns attention only through his marriage to the composer's cousin.) Saint-Saëns had originally thought to compose an oratorio along the lines Voltaire had suggested in his own libretto for Rameau's opera Samson. In the event, it was Lemaire who convinced Saint-Saëns that the subject would be better treated as an opera. Astonishingly, even though Rameau's eighteenth century work had never been staged due to troubles with the French censors, or so at least Voltaire claimed, Saint-Saëns was unaware that his own opera would face the exact same problem. He should certainly have realized that even in worldly nineteenth century Paris Biblical stories were not considered proper fare for the stage. When at length Saint-Saëns learned of the dilemma he very nearly gave up the project and even went so far as to stop work on it for two years.
If anyone is to be credited with the eventual success of Samson et Dalila it is Franz Liszt. After having played through the score of the opera as it then stood, the former Weimar Kapellmeister promised Saint-Saëns he would arrange for a performance once the work had been completed and proved as good as his word. The libretto having been translated into German for the occasion, the opera premiered in December 1877 and was a resounding success even though several more years elapsed before the work found a permanent place in the repertoire.
As the Met's program notes point out, the key to the opera's success is a series of contrasts juxtaposed one against the other. Thus, at the very opening, the austerity of the Hebrew chorus immediately precedes the more lightweight and exotic music of the Philistines. This helps reinforce the religious nature of Samson's story as one in which love of God is set against shallow worldliness. The conflict between these is developed inexorably through the three acts until it at last finds resolution in Samson's destruction of the pagan temple.
The cast was excellent but unfortunately Samson et Dalila, filled as it is with beautiful music, does not contain that many noteworthy arias. As it was, Elīna Garanča, as Dalila, was superb when singing Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix in Act II, and Roberto Alagna was truly affecting when voicing his repentance while toiling at the grist mill in Act III, Scene 1. One only wishes Saint-Saëns had given these two more opportunities to display their talents. On the podium, Mark Elder's conducting was adequate if undistinguished.
As for the production by Darko Tresnjak, it was obvious the Met was ready yet again to sacrifice dramatic integrity to special effects. The sets for Act II as well as Act III, Scene 1 were more appropriate to a low budget sci fi movie than French grand opera. The flash-bang finale itself could have come from a Star Wars film. The costumes for the famous Act III Bacchanale ballet were also a disappointment though I thought the choreography itself very accomplished.