Reviewed by Steven Whitehead
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) wrote music across all genres but in the field of opera he experienced relatively little success. The only exception was the dramatic work 'Samson et Dalila'. Saint-Saëns had made the decision to write an oratorio from the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah in 1859, which undoubtedly had to do with his admiration for Handel and Mendelssohn. It was the occasional poet and husband of Saint-Saëns' cousin, Ferdinand Lemaire, who persuaded him to drop the oratorio and write an opera instead and of the 13 he composed this is the only one to have become established in the operatic repertoire. This live recording from 2009 shows why Saint-Saens' version has remained so popular. There are many memorable arias and more than enough drama (one almost write melodrama) to satisfy all who appreciate opera in its classic form, as demonstrated by, for example, Puccini or Verdi. Torsten Kerl is an imposing Samson, Marianna Tarasova a seductive Dalila, none of the supporting singers disappoint and Tomas Netopil gets fine performances from the Symphony Orchestra and Choir of Vlaamse Opera Antwerp/Ghent. So why only four squares? Partly because the subtitles did not work and my limited command of the French language was insufficient for me to understand what was happening on stage. This surprised me as I have a more than adequate knowledge of the Old Testament and know the Book Of Judges very well indeed. Clearly Saint-Saens and his librettist have taken liberties with the text which I realise is inevitable whenever a written story is reconfigured as a sung drama. But what really confused me was the spin put on it as the story of a doomed love set against the backdrop of cultural conflict between Hebrews and Philistines is reinterpreted to relate with the conflicts in today's Middle East by the co-directors, Israeli Omri Nitzan and Palestinian Amir Nizar Zuabi. I know that in any tribal conflict there are never good guys and baddies, only victims, but I could not work out whether the Palestinians were being oppressed by Israelis or the Hebrews were the victims of Philistine ethnic cleansing, even with the help of the bonus "making of" documentary (thankfully made in English). I know that the Bible story of Samson And Delilah is, in Phyllis Trible's memorable phrase, a text of terror but I do not believe that poor old Saint-Saens' opera is the place to enter into a debate on the politics of sexual and political oppression.
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