Event: Saint-Saëns’ SAMSON ET DALILA
Date: October 20, 2018, 12:55 pm
Run Time: 3 hours 29 minutes with two intermissions
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for SAMSON ET DALILAper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for SAMSON ET DALILAper student • $11.00 online


Palestine, 1150 B.C. In a square in Gaza, a group of Hebrews beg Jehovah for relief from their bondage to the Philistines; Samson, their leader, rebukes them for their lack of faith. When the Philistine commander, Abimélech, denounces the Hebrews and their God, Samson kills him and leads the Hebrews away. The High Priest of Dagon comes from the Philistine temple and curses Samson’s prodigious strength, leaving with the slain man’s bier. An Old Hebrew praises the returning Samson. The outer walls of the temple disappear to reveal Samson’s former lover, the Philistine woman Dalila, who invites him to come that night to her nearby dwelling. She and her maidens dance seductively for Samson, who becomes deaf to the Old Hebrew’s dour prophecies.

In the vale of Sorek, Dalila calls on her gods to help her ensnare and disarm Samson, promising the High Priest to find a way to render the hero powerless. Samson appears, passionate in spite of himself; when Dalila has him in her power, she feigns disbelief in his constancy and demands that he show his love by confiding in her the secret of his strength, weeping when he refuses. Samson hears rolling thunder as a warning from God but cannot resist following Dalila inside. Not long afterward, having finally learned that the secret of Samson’s strength is his long hair, she calls to hidden Philistine soldiers, who rush in to capture and blind Samson.

In a dungeon at Gaza, the sightless Samson pushes a grist mill in a circle, praying for his people, who will suffer for his sin. He hears their voices castigating him. During a bacchanal in the Temple of Dagon, Dalila and the High Priest taunt Samson. When they force him to kneel to Dagon, he asks a boy to lead him to the two main pillars of the temple. Samson prays to Jehovah to restore his strength, and with a mighty effort he pulls down the pillars and the temple, crushing himself and his foes.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. (King James Bible: Judges, Chapter 16)

Who wants to hear Samson et Dalila? I respectfully suggest, Nobody. (George Bernard Shaw)

In 19th century France, success for a composer meant success in the opera house. Camille Saint-Saëns, celebrated in his long lifetime for his chamber and orchestral works, composed a dozen operas. Mostly, they flopped. Only Samson et Dalila is staged regularly nowadays, and not so regularly at that. It was conceived as an oratorio and took six years to reach operatic form; in its classical stateliness and major choral component, it remains oratorio-like. The exotic setting allowed the composer to indulge in the “Orientalism” favored by French artists and composers of the time; Saint-Saëns, an eager orientalist, travelled to North Africa and soaked up its influences. They are especially noticeable in the Act III Bacchanale, a concert hall favorite. The other best-known number in the opera is Dalila’s seduction song, Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix.

French opera audiences loved biblical subjects. Méhul (Joseph), Gounod (The Queen of Sheba), and Massenet (Hérodiade) tackled them. The story of Samson and Delilah is one of the most dramatic in the Old Testament. Saint-Saëns’s music is elegant, colorful, varied. The title characters have juicy parts. Why is Samson et Dalila not staged more often? It’s been called tame and decorous. It’s been called licentious and blasphemous. (You can’t win.) But who knows? Today, perhaps, Samson will bring down the house.