Epics based on biblical themes were popular subjects for grand opera, especially in the 19th century French repertory. Blockbusters composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer, but seldom performed today, inspired Camille Saint-Saëns to create the classic bible tale “Samson and Delilah,” the second production in the San Diego Opera 2013 season.
Based on the Book of Judges, this opera has it all. A sensual Delilah seduces a super-man hero to reveal the secret of his strength so his enemies can capture Samson and condemn him to enslavement. The drama has plotting Philistines, the spectacle of a pagan bacchanal and a finale that literally brings down the house, in this case the temple, where the Philistines were mocking Samson.
How did the beautiful Delilah bring Samson to his knees? After his passionate rendezvous with the temptress, he was shorn of his long locks of hair, his eyes were gouged out and he was put in chains. In order to help her succeed in disarming the Hebrews’ leader, Delilah was given one of the most exotic and seductive arias written for a mezzo soprano to lure Samson to confess his secret.
“Samson and Delilah” is sometimes branded as a one-aria opera, but there is plenty of other music providing rich melody in grand opera style. The plot takes place in Gaza in the 12th century B.C. where the Hebrews were haggling with the Philistines for their freedom. Saint-Saëns created an exotic score with the use of tonal variations producing an eastern oriental sound to enhance the elaborate settings and costumes.
Despite Samson’s total defeat, he never loses his loyalty to his country and devotion to God. His hair begins to grow back as he begs for redemption for his vulnerability. The opportunity comes during a bacchanal in the pagan temple with all the exoticism of a sensual ballet scene. Samson’s captors lead the blind giant into the temple to ridicule him and brag of their victory over his people.
While the revelers celebrate, Samson positions himself between two supporting pillars, prays for the return of his strength and brings down the structure to crush his enemies and the treacherous Delilah. It’s a spectacle unequaled on the opera stage.
The opera premiered in 1877 at Weimar, Germany, with Saint-Saëns’ good friend Franz Liszt conducting. The Hungarian composer was the toast of Paris as a performer who admired his French colleague’s piano music and helped to get his opera produced.
Saint-Saëns is better known for his orchestral pieces. His only other opera still in the general repertory is “Henry VIII,” seldom performed but produced by SDO in 1983 starring Sherrill Milnes. The composer was critical of his French contemporaries’ work, especially Debussy. As French music moved into lighter more impressionistic style, the aging composer was left behind while admiring his champion Richard Wagner and the bygone days of Meyerbeer’s era of French grand opera.
The composer continued his success as a conductor and even appeared in California to conduct the San Francisco Symphony in 1915 during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
The title roles in “Samson and Delilah” are sung by Bulgarian mezzo soprano Nadia Krasteva making her SDO debut. She performs regularly with the Vienna State Opera and the major opera houses of Europe. Clifton Forbis repeats his 2007 performance here as Samson. The American is popular as the heroic tenor in the demanding roles of Tristan, Otello and Siegmund in major opera houses.
SDO’s Resident Conductor Karen Keltner leads the action from the orchestra pit, a position she has admirably filled since 1982 as one of the first and still few women opera conductors. She is teamed with Lesley Koenig who returns to SDO as stage director with credits of 30 productions with the Metropolitan Opera and three shared Emmy Awards.
“Samson and Delilah” is sung in French with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 16, Tuesday, Feb. 19 and Friday Feb. 22; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24. For ticket information, call 619-533 7000 or visit www.sdopera.com
Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.