Continuing to review this very fine production of the French opera “Samson et Dalila“…
Where we last left off in our Bible sermon, Samson has incited a full-on communal war between Hebrews and Philistines. He destroyed the wheat harvest of the Philistines, while also murdering 300 foxes in the process. (Who are also useful animals, in that they keep the rodent population down and thus help preserve the harvest, among other things.) We know from earlier passages that Samson’s parents were Hebrew Nationalists who raised him to hate Philistines. What they didn’t reckon on was his attraction to Philistine women. He tried to pass this off as, like, “infiltrating the enemy”, but I’m not sure Mom and Dad bought that excuse. It just seems pretty clear that Samson was not attracted to Jewish girls, who knows why? Jewish girls were equally beautiful, maybe the Philistine girls were just less sexually repressed? Or maybe they wore better bling.
Speaking of the Philistines, even the greatest scholars of our generation don’t seem to know who they were, or where they came from. Like the Israelites, they were newcomers to the region (we’re talking around 1500 BCE), possibly from the Aegean sea area, possibly even Indo-European speakers (at first) before they eventually blended in with all the Semites. One clue that they may have been “sea people” originally is that their chief God, Dagon, had fins and a fish-tail. Unfortunately, the Philistines didn’t seem to know how to read or write, and didn’t leave any books behind (unlike their beloved enemies, the Hebrews!) In other respects they had a high level of material culture: They built towns and roads, made pottery, cultivated wheat fields and olive groves. At their peak (according to wiki) they may have achieved a population of around 30,000 in their five major towns. Which is around that tipping point, when a tribe starts to become a nation.
Per wiki: Cities excavated in the area attributed to Philistines give evidence of careful town planning, including industrial zones. The olive industry of Ekron alone includes about 200 olive oil installations. Engineers estimate that the city’s production may have been more than 1,000 tons, 30 percent of Israel’s present-day production. There is considerable evidence for a large industry in fermented drink. Finds include breweries, wineries, and retail shops marketing beer and wine. Beer mugs and wine kraters are among the most common pottery finds.
We learned in Judges 13, that Samson’s parents raised him to be a teetotaler, no beer or wine! Which possibly gave him an edge over these Philistine tipplers. According to Judges 15, Samson led a guerrilla war against the Philistines for many years while hiding out in the mountains. After inventing the Foxfire weapon, he next came up with “Ass-Jawbone” technology, with which he slew ever more Philistine soldiers. Eventually the Philistines threw in the towel, the Hebrew community took the upper hand, and Samson became their chief Leader, or Judge, as they called them in those days.
In the opera version, these some 20 years of adventures are collapsed down into the first 10 minutes! In a backstage interview between Live-in-HD host Susan Graham and the orchestra conductor, Sir Mark Elder, the latter described how the music radically changes gears in the very first 10 minutes: From the wailing of the Hebrew chorus, Samson’s defiant aria, his slaying of Governor Abimelech; and then all of a sudden we are transported to a completely different world, both musically and costume-wise, as the Philistine chorus and ballet corps descend the stairs, a gorgeous bevy of women, surrounding their leader, the beautifully perfumed and be-costumed Delilah! Governor Abimelech has not even been laid in his tomb, and already the Philistine women are arriving to pay their respects to their macho conqueror!
As we see, the librettist completely skipped over a whole lot of Bible story and just went straight for the gut-punch: Delilah! Who struts down the stairs of Dagon’s temple, and we soon learn, from the back-and-forth, that she and Samson are old friends; have some history together; and that she has her own agenda in seeking out this reunion.
Next: We meet the coloratura baddie, the High Priest of Dagon!
[to be continued]