Samson Brings Down The House – at the Met – Part II

Dear Readers:

Classical music experts regard “Samson et Dalila” as one of the true masterpieces of the French opera.  Composer Camille Saint-Saëns initially thought to stage this work as an oratorio, like Handel’s “Messiah”, which he greatly admired.  The oratorio was considered a preferred form for a piece based on a Bible story.  According to wiki, it was Camille’s librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire, who convinced him to transform the material into an opera:

Franz Liszt supported and encouraged Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns later wrote:  A young relative of mine had married a charming young man who wrote verse on the side. I realized that he was gifted and had in fact real talent. I asked him to work with me on an oratorio on a biblical subject. ‘An oratorio!’, he said, ‘no, let’s make it an opera!’, and he began to dig through the Bible while I outlined the plan of the work, even sketching scenes, and leaving him only the versification to do. For some reason I began the music with act 2, and I played it at home to a select audience who could make nothing of it at all.

There were some objections to the idea of staging a Bible story (certain things were considered taboo, even in Paris), and it was only the fervent support of Franz Liszt which ensured the completion of this project:

In spite of many precedents, the French public reacted negatively to Saint-Saëns’s intention of putting a Biblical subject on the stage. The alarm on the part of the public caused him to abandon working further on the opera for the next two years. […..]  Although Saint-Saëns completed the score in 1876, no opera houses in France displayed any desire to stage Samson et Dalila. Liszt’s sustained support however led to the work being mounted in Weimar in 1877.

Governor Abimelech: “You Hebrews down there, stop your kvetching!”

Act I of the opera opens in a square outside the temple of the god Dagon.  The chorus of Hebrews (keep in mind that this is a very choral work) moans and groans about their “bondage” to the Philistines and complains that their god Yahweh is not providing them with adequate support.  The Philistine Governor, Abimelech (sung by Azerbaijani baritone Elchin Azizov) deigns to emerge from his Governor’s Mansion to taunt the Israelite chorus.  (“Your god has abandoned you.  Dagon rules – yeh!”)  Samson, who is there to buck up his people, works himself up into a rage.  See, it is clear (also from the Biblical story) that Samson’s super-power (=his amazing physical strength) unlike Superman’s, is not always on tap.  He has to work himself up psychologically, while also intoning prayers to Yahweh:  “Don’t you hear these Philistines mocking you, God?  Oh, give me the strength to kill this guy!”  Which He does, and he does.  Samson’s bare-handed slaying of Abimelech starts the revolution…

The Philistines worshipped a merman god named Dagon.

The Bible story itself makes it fairly clear that the Israelites were not literally in bondage, nor kept as slaves by the Philistines; nor even forced to perform manual labor, as in their earlier Egyptian stay.  At the very worst, they had their local authorities and Judges disabled and were under Philistine legal jurisdiction.  They probably had to pay taxes as well, I am guessing.  But they were not physically restrained:  In the Bible story, Samson and his parents freely roam the land, slaying lions and collecting honey as they please.  Samson even takes a Philistine wife, indicating that the two communities were free to inter-marry.  No, more than likely this was just a case of two hostile communities being forced to live side by side, sharing land and water resources.  Not unlike Ossetians and Ingush in the Caucacuses.  Or Ukrainians and Russians in modern-day Donbass towns!

Bible Study (Continued)

We continue our “canonical” Bible story where we left off.  Recall that Samson had married a young Philistine girl, against his parents wishes.  The Philistines not only welcomed this young buck into their community, they even provided him with 30 companions to help him get through the 7-day wedding feast.  And how did Samson repay them?  It seems like the Philistines had a custom whereby the groom was supposed to purchase nice new shirts and underwear for his wedding companions.  But Samson didn’t want to put out the cash for that.  So, instead he tricked them into a bet that they would never be able to win, by posing an unsolvable riddle.  But when his new wife wiled the answer out of him (showing that she was more loyal to her tribal relatives than to her new hubby), Samson flew into a rage, went on a killing spree, slaying 30 completely innocuous men from the town of Ashkelon, just to steal their clothes!  and then handed his wife over to be despoiled by his best man.

In the next scene (Judges 15, Verse 1), Samson shows up again at his wife’s house, expecting to have sex with her like nothing happened.  And here we find that maybe it wasn’t even Samson who handed the girl over to his best man, maybe it was her actual father, who also seems like a horrible type from a typically patriarchal society that treats women as worse than cattle:

Her father would not allow him to go in. And her father said, “I really thought that you utterly hated her, so I gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister more beautiful than she? Please take her instead.” And Samson said to them, “This time I shall be innocent in regard to the Philistines, when I do them harm.” So Samson went and caught 300 foxes and took torches. And he turned them tail to tail and put a torch between each pair of tails. And when he had set fire to the torches, he let the foxes go into the standing grain of the Philistines and set fire to the stacked grain and the standing grain, as well as the olive orchards.

Samson invents the “Foxfire” super-weapon!

In summary:  Samson commits a war crime by destroying the grain harvest and olive orchards of the Philistines.  People are not supposed to do that, even in war.  And not only that, but he tortures animals as well.  Imagine the agony and indignity of those 300 foxes:  Being tied to each other by the tails, and then burned alive!

And this, Brothers and Sisters of the Congregation, is our Pious Man!  The one chosen by God!  Not that the Philistines are any better, mind you.  Dear old dad the Philistine tried to give away his younger daughter to a known murderer.  And then the Philistine police arrive and burn that entire family alive.  Again, a horrific abuse of human rights.  (See, I’m not excusing the Philistines either, they’re just as bad, but they didn’t write a Book extolling their crimes…)

In conclusion:  Samson’s own actions led to the demise of his in-laws; and yet the cruel reaction of the Philistine police leads him (self-righteously) to declare even more vengeance against them.  And so the cycle of violence continues…

[to be continued]

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