“Samson and Delilah,” an opera in three acts, with music by C. Saint-Saëns, and text by Ferdinand Lemaire, was produced at the Court Theatre, Weimar, Dec. 2, 1877. It is founded on the Biblical narrative.
Samson. Abimelech, Satrap of Gaza. High Priest of Dagon. Delilah, his daughter. Old Hebrew man. A lad. Messengers. Chorus of Hebrews and Philistines, priestesses.
The curtain rises upon a public square in the city of Gaza in Palestine. Here is assembled a multitude of Hebrews in grief and prayer. Evil days have come upon them ; their enemies, the Philistines, have triumphed over them, and they fear that the God of Israel has deserted their cause. Only Samson, the strong, brave Hebrew soldier, lifts his voice in expressions of hope and reassurance. The people, crying that his words are from the Lord and that he will save the nation, feel new courage inspire them.
Abimelech, Satrap of Gaza, enters followed by the Philistine warriors, who shout defiance at the Hebrews and drown their voices with praises of Dagon, the pagan deity. Samson interrupts their foolish taunts to cry, ” Israel, break thy chains ! Arise and conqueror be!” Abimelech brooks no symptom of independence from the Hebrews and, sword in hand, he attacks Samson, who turns and slays him. The Philistines, headed by the High Priest, swear to avenge the death of their prince.
In the morning, Delilah and the Philistine women come to Samson with garlands in their hands. Delilah, the high priest’s daughter, is very beautiful. She hails Samson as hero and employs her subtle enticements to win his heart. Samson feels himself yielding to her spell and struggles manfully against it, but his soul is possessed by her grace. The old men see it and warn him.
In the second act, the High Priest tells his daughter that Samson has led the Hebrews against the Philistines and has been victorious. He urges her to attempt to ensnare the hero, promising her if successful, anything she may desire. He taunts her with the report that Samson now boasts that his love for her is dead and that he laughs at a passion that lasted but a day.
The strong man and the enchantress meet and Samson again is submitted to the test of Delilah’s allurements. He is determined at first, confessing his love, but telling her that he believes the Lord has chosen him for greater things than loving; that his task is to deliver his nation out of the hand of the oppressor. But she pleads the cause of her great love with magnificent hypocrisy. The dramatic effect of the struggle between the two is intensified by the crashing of thunder and the play of lightning about them. At last the chagrined Delilah runs into her house, thinking that she has failed and casting imprecations behind her. But Sam-son, after another inward battle, follows her. Like a flash, Delilah gains her terrace, and calls upon the waiting Philistines, and Samson is betrayed into their hands.
In the third act, he is seen in the prison of the Philistines, Blinded and shorn, he is reduced to grinding at a mill. The Hebrew captives tell him of his people’s subjugation and cry reproachfully that he sold them for a woman’s charms. To make his humiliation complete, he is led into the temple of Dagon where the High Priest mockingly bids him call upon his Jehovah to restore his strength and cure his blindness. Delilah, too, adds her voice to her father’s. The libation is poured upon the sacred flame, and the High Priest commands the prisoner to kneel and present offerings to Dagon, telling the child who leads the fallen hero to guide his steps to the middle of the temple ” that all beholding may in scorn deride him.” Praying fervently for a restoration of strength, Samson grasps the pillars between which he stands and the temple falls upon the shrieking multitude.
” Samson and Delilah ” is the masterpiece of Saint-Saéns and has done more perhaps than any of his other works to bring him to world-wide fame. The first act is written in the oratorio style and for this reason the opera is most frequently given in concert form. Although the score was completed in 1872, not until two years later was any portion of the opera accorded performance and then only in private, when Mme. Viardot-Garcia gave the second act. The first act had a hearing at the Colonne concerts in Paris in 1875 and, two years later, Edouard Lassen produced the entire work in opera form in Weimar. In 1.878, it received presentation in Brussels ; in 1883, in Hamburg ; in 1890, in France at Rouen and, at last, in 1892 it reached the Paris grand opera and was mounted in magnificent manner. The first hearing of the work in the United States was made possible by Walter Damrosch’s production in New York, March 25, 1892, when it was given in oratorio form.
Notable passages are, in Act I, the chorus sung by the captive Hebrews and the choruses of the priestesses of Dagon ; the trio in which Delilah begins to exert her spell over Samson, sung by Samson and Delilah and a remonstrating old Hebrew man and Delilah’s lovely aria ” Spring voices are singing.” In Act II are Delilah’s song, ” 0 Love! in my weakness give power; ” the dramatic duet between the High Priest and Delilah, in which he urges her to ensnare the hero; the duet betwen Samson and Delilah sung in the tempest, ” My heart at thy dear voice,” an intensely passionate love song and the most widely known number in the entire work. In Act III are the prayer of Samson, mourning his lost sight and the ballet music in the temple of Dagon.