Thursday, December 1, 2022

SAMSON & DELILAH: Why in concert?

Up next, Seattle Opera presents the beautiful, evocative music Saint-Saëns composed to tell the story of Samson et Dalila. But why present it as a concert, instead of an opera complete with scenery, costumes, hair and make-up, and special effects? Concert presentations are actually in keeping with Samson and Delilah’s performance history ever since the 1860s, when the work first started taking shape, for several reasons:

Profane Opera or Sacred Oratorio?
Saint-Saëns himself never quite made up his mind whether he was writing an opera or an oratorio. Both forms use solo vocalists, chorus, and orchestra to tell a story. But unlike operas, oratorios usually a) are given as concerts—though there are exceptions—and b) tell stories considered sacred in their cultures of origin. Seattle Symphony recently presented Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion, a gorgeous new oratorio with stories drawn from Buddhist legend, lore, and sacred texts.

During opera’s first few centuries in Christian Europe, the theater was known as a disreputable place of sinful show, dubious characters, and sketchy morals. So Bible stories were almost never dramatized as operas. That might risk profaning the holy word. Instead, composers inspired by the Bible expressed their feelings in this more restrained, purely musical form—witness works such as Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions or Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

Consider the curious career of George Frideric Handel, composer of dozens of glorious operas—until the bottom fell out of the market for opera in London in the 1730s. A canny businessman, Handel put everything he’d learned about musical storytelling, and writing for the voice, into oratorios, creating his best-known work, The Messiah (coming to a concert hall near you this Christmas). His operas—Semele, Julius Caesar, Xerxes, Alcina, Agrippina, and many, many others—draw their stories from myth, legend, and Roman history. Handel’s oratorios, on the other hand—Israel in Egypt, Joshua, Judas Maccabeus, Deborah, Saul, Esther—tend to take their stories from the Old Testament. Handel even composed a wondrous oratorio on Samson in 1743. Inspired by the profound and serious dramatic poem of 1671 by John Milton, Samson Agonistes, Handel’s Samson couldn’t possibly be more different from Saint-Saëns’ telling of the same story. (Milton/Handel, for instance, start with Samson already blinded; Saint-Saëns doesn’t get there until Act Three.)

Nabucco, Verdi’s first masterpiece, like Samson and Delilah draws its story from the Old Testament. When we presented it in 2015 it ended up being a bit more like a rock concert than a standard opera—the musicians were placed behind the singers, who stood on the raised pit to project their amazing voices into McCaw Hall (photo © Philip Newton).

Bible Stories vs. Verismo Drama
The Bible is full of wondrous stories. But its story-telling works quite differently than the way stories were told in nineteenth-century theaters. There’s barely any description in Bible stories, and dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum. The story of Samson is found in the Book of Judges, Chapters 13–16. It’s only about 2500 words (the length of an article or a short story); the prose is lean and spare, and asks more questions than it answers. Take, for example, the passage: “And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith.” That brief episode could easily inspire powerful music. But try to make it into theater and questions will start popping up like bubbles in a carbonated beverage. Where (in what scenic location) did he find this jawbone (prop)? What time of day was it? Was it a struggle for Samson to put forth his hand and take it? What was his attitude at that moment? Who were these thousand men he slew? What were they all wearing? What’s the best way to represent such a large group onstage? How long did it take him to kill them all? What became of all the corpses? and on and on...

Saint-Saëns and his librettist decided to focus on the complexities of the relationship between Samson and the woman who destroys him, Delilah. They ended up writing an opera which, in many ways, is a fun-house mirror of another wonderful French opera written at the exact same time, Carmen. (In both, an exotic femme fatale mezzo soprano seduces and destroys a brawny-but-brainless tenor, who takes her with him when he goes.) But whereas Samson, with its stylized Biblical drama, is like a stained-glass window, Carmen is positively cinematic in its colorful sense of three-dimensional reality. Carmen isn’t quite verismo opera, yet; but it’s almost there. Samson and Delilah is and should be anti-verismo.

Salome, Richard Strauss’s first opera masterpiece, draws its kinky plot from a Bible story filtered through the comic and decadent sensibility of Oscar Wilde. It is absolutely unholy—but finds a curious beauty in its willful perversity. Chester Ludgin and Klara Barlow sang Jokanaan and Salome in Seattle Opera’s 1970 Salome (photo © Ellen Blassingham).

A Question of Tone
Because of the sanctity associated with the Bible, its stories, and its characters, artists must be careful: it’s easy to offend your audience if you swim upstream against the flow of their preconceptions. (Painters, don’t make your Madonnas too sexy; writers/filmmakers, don’t make Jesus too human. And please don’t depict Muhammed in any artistic shape.) Despite its Biblical source, the story of Samson and Delilah is not about saintlike behavior. Samson, who’s always wrestling lions, ripping up city gates with his bare hands, or slaying thousands with the jawbone of an ass, is something of a tall-tale hero. He is brother to Thor, Hercules, Bhima, Paul Bunyan, and many others. These beloved characters come with built-in comedy; that is, it’s difficult to tell their stories without being light and funny.

Saint-Saëns mitigates the goofiness of the tall-tale hero by making his Samson into more of a political rabble-rouser than a contestant on World’s Strongest Man. And what about the tragic haircut? (Samson falls from grace when Delilah cuts off his hair.) Although nowadays we might be able to find a way to stage that without causing hilarity, in the nineteenth century only comic operas starred barbers. So Saint-Saëns arranged it so that scene happens offstage—anticlimactic, at best, if you’re presenting Samson and Delilah as a theater piece.

Speaking of anticlimaxes, the opera concludes, as does the Bible story, with Samson pulling the roof of the temple of Dagon down to crush himself, Delilah, and all the Philistines of the chorus. French grand opera in those days always concluded with some scenic spectacular along those lines, and theatrical technicians have sometimes found ways of creating an exciting special effect for that moment. But Saint-Saëns, who didn’t have much experience writing music for the theater, rushes the climax, musically; he doesn’t give the technicians enough time for a truly satisfying debacle before the show is suddenly over. It works fine in concert, at the theater of your imagination. Without anything too literal to distract, this extraordinary music can indeed embody the power of God.

Although Cecil B. DeMille did a pretty good temple-crushing-everybody-to-death conclusion to his 1949 Samson and Delilah movie (posted HERE), at Seattle Opera in 1965 the conclusion of the opera looked decidedly underwhelming (photo © Margaret Marshall)

Our conductor for Samson and Delilah, Ludovic Morlot, has a long history of wowing Seattle audiences with breath-taking performances of French music, including Saint-Saëns and (at Seattle Opera) Berlioz. We can’t wait to hear what he makes of this unique and ravishing work.

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