In the 1860s the composer was aware of a renewed
interest in choral music, so he planned an oratorio on the story of Samson that
is found in Chapter sixteen of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. He
spoke to the husband of one of his wife's cousins, Ferdinand Lemaire, about
writing a libretto for it and the writer said the story would make a good
opera. They began working on it as an opera, but other concerns interrupted
Fellow composer Franz Liszt, who was interested in producing new works by
talented composers, persuaded Saint-Saëns to finish Samson and
Delilah, saying that he would produce the completed work at the
grand-ducal opera house in Weimar.
The composer tailored the role of Delilah for Pauline Viardot
(1821–1910), but by the time the work was finished and could be staged,
the singer was too old to perform it. She did, however, organize a private
performance of the second act at a friend's home with the composer at the
piano. A great admirer of the work, she hoped that this private performance
would encourage the director of the Paris Opéra to mount a full production.
Although Saint-Saëns completed the score in 1876, no opera houses in France
displayed any desire to stage Samson and Delilah.
It was Liszt's support that led to the work being premiered in a German
translation on December 2, 1877, in Weimar, where it was a resounding success.
But there were many intervening years before it started to become popular in
other cities. Its Paris premiere at the Éden-Théâtre did not take place until
October 31, 1890, but audiences did give it a warm reception. Over the next two
years, performances were staged in Bordeaux, Geneva, Toulouse, Nantes, Dijon,
and Montpellier. When the Paris Opéra finally presented the opera on November
23, 1892, audience members and critics alike praised it.
On February 19, 2013, San Diego Opera presented Samson and Delilah
in a traditional production directed by Leslie Koenig. The solid looking,
effective scenery was designed by Douglas Schmidt and the soft colored costumes
were originated by Carrie Robbins. All were constructed at San Francisco Opera.
Koenig’s direction told the story in a straightforward manner and made no
attempt to update or change the setting from the borders of Judah, Dan, and
Philistia in the late twelfth or early eleventh century BCE.
Clifton Forbis was a dramatic Samson who showed us the wages of his
character’s sins. Vocally, he started off slowly, but it is a long role
and his pacing was good after the first scene. His best singing was heard
during the poignant third act aria, ‘Vois ma misère, helas’. Tall
and slim Nadia Krasteva was a sensual, seductive Delilah who fully captured her
man when she sang ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (My Heart
Opens at your Voice). Her voice had a purple velvet sound and the low notes of
her chest voice were exquisite. As the High Priest of Dagon, Anooshah Golesorki
commanded the stage as he sang with a stentorian voice. His second act duet
with Krasteva was quite memorable.
Gregory Reinhart was a compelling Old Hebrew and Mikhail Svetlov a fiery
Abimilech. Doug Jones, Scott Sikon, and Greg Fedderly gave interesting
portrayals as Philistines. Since the composer originally thought to write this
work as an oratorio, the chorus is very important. Under the direction of
Charles F. Prestinari, the San Diego Opera Chorus sang Saint-Saens’
rousing music with great gusto. Conductor Karen Keltner is an expert on both
French language and French music, so she coached the singers’ diction in
addition to leading the orchestra in this idiomatic performance. She brought
out Saint-Saens’ love for the exotic and her interpretation was
particularly impressive in the ‘Bacchanal’. Her tempi were well
thought out and the playing was rich and translucent. Kenneth von
Heidecke’s choreography was fun to watch and the enticing music made the
entire audience want to join the dance.
Cast and Production Information
Clifton Forbis, Samson; Nadia Krasteva, Delilah; Mikhail Svetlov,
Abimelech; Anoosha Golesorki, High Priest of Dagon; Scott Sikon and Doug Jones,
Philistines; Greg Fedderly, Philistine Messenger; Gregory Reinhart, Old Hebrew;
Karen Keltner, conductor; Leslie Koenig, director; Kenneth von Heidecke,
choreographer; Charles F. Prestinari, chorus master; Douglas Schmidt, scenery;
Carrie Robbins, costumes; Gary Marder, lighting design. San Diego Opera, Civic
Theater, Tuesday, February 19, 2013.