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

Dear Readers:

Almost done with our opera review, just have a little more Philistinism, a couple of Acts, and some more Bible sermons to get through!

First I have to say, though, it is a sad state of affairs, when two highly intelligent peoples like the Israelis Israelites and Palestinians Philistines can’t just live side by side for centuries and be good neighbors and even friends. Can’t we all just get along? Apparently not, alas, this has been the human conditions for thousands of years.  It is only when a great Empire (like Egypt, Assyria, or Rome) intervenes and unites them, that people buck up and start to get along — because they have no choice!  Who, oh who, will be that next great Empire that comes along to unite the warring Middle Eastern tribes?  The United States of America?  (hahahahhaha!)  Maybe it will be Persia again, who knows?  Or maybe our Martian Overlords.

Anyhow, where we left off, the opera had collapsed some 20 years of history into 9 or 10 minutes.  Samson used his super-power to overthrow the Philistine Authority.  Now the Hebrews are on top, and Samson is their leader.  The Philistines, naturally, are plotting to regain the upper hand.  They send a bevy of Philistine women (=Priestesses of Dagon), led by High Priestess Delilah, to beguile their macho conqueror.  The costumes of the Philistine priestesses were fantastic and must have cost a fortune!  In a backstage interview, Elīna Garanča raved about Delilah’s beautiful dress and jewelry, and what a treat it was to get to wear it!

Soon we get to meet the leader of the Philistine Resistance, none other than the High Priest of Dagon.  Sung wonderfully by French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri.  Naouri is married to French superstar soprano Natalie Dessay, and they have two children.  This guy is apparently quite a character.  During one of the intermissions, Naouri bounded up to the offered mic and emitted a long evil chuckle.  “Laurent,” protested host Susan Graham, “we have been friends for years, and I know you’re a really nice guy.  How do you play such villains?”

An operatic family: Laurent and his wife Natalie

“I just pay attention to the music,” Naouri explained.  He went on to describe just how brilliant this music is.  According to Naouri, Camille Saint-Saëns threw everything that he had, and everything that he knew, into this particular masterpiece.  Naouri called it “the kitchen sink” opera.  In his own role, that of the High Priest, he bounds out of Dagon’s temple in Act I (after Samson kills Governor Abimelech), blasting out his curses against Samson and the Israelites.  He has to be in full voice right out of the box, with no warm-up!

When a messenger arrives, informing him about Samson’s destruction of the wheat harvest, Naouri’s voice goes all sinuous as he crafts a careful plot to use Beauty to slay the Beast: “Qu’enfin une compagne infâme trahisse son amour!”  (“Let an infamous companion finally betray his love!”)  In Act III of this “kitchen sink” opera, the High Priest adopts yet another vocal persona in Act III:  “Now all of a sudden we are in a Handel oratorio.  And I am singing coloratura bass!”  Speaking of Bacchanales, Saint-Saëns bucked tradition once again, when he staged not one but two ballets in this opera, the first in Act I (the dance of the Dagon Priestesses), and the second in Act III (the Bacchanale in the Temple).  The norm in French opera was to stage the sexy ballet at the beginning of Act II so that the young bucks of Parisian social life could dine late, arrive late, and still enjoy the only part of the show that they really wanted to see.  Recall that Wagner also ran a-foul of this tradition, when he staged the Tannhäuser Bacchanale right at the beginning of Act I.

Bible Sermon

So what does the actual Holy Book have to say about all these goings-on?  Brothers and Sisters of the Congregation, I give you Judges 16, all of this action takes place while Samson is still an outlaw on the run:

After this he loved a woman in the Valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah. And the lords of the Philistines came up to her and said to her, “Seduce him, and see where his great strength lies, and by what means we may overpower him, that we may bind him to humble him. And we will each give you 1,100 pieces of silver.” So Delilah said to Samson, “Please tell me where your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you.”

Here is Dalila’s aria, sung in concert:  “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix…”

TRANSLATION from the French: “Let’s play at bondage!”

This Bible story then turns into a Lucy and Charlie Brown type joke, if Lucy and Charlie Brown were to also play at “50 shades of grey”.  Delilah keeps asking Samson how it is possible to bind him.  And each time he lies to her, for example, he says he could be bound with fresh bowstrings.  And then new ropes.  Each time she tries it out on him with Philistine men lying in ambush in her bedroom, waiting to attack Samson.  And each time he breaks out of the bondage and repels his attackers, laughing his head off.  For Samson, this is probably just sex play.  After four or five times, this mullet-head still doesn’t get it, that Delilah is trying to trick him!  He starts to inch closer to the truth, though, when he tells his girl that she could braid his hair and pin it to the loom.  But even that doesn’t work.  Finally he gives in to her incessant badgering and reveals the truth:  That the source of his super-strength is his long hair!  All she needs to do, to neuter him, is give him a haircut.

When Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines, saying, “Come up again, for he has told me all his heart.” Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her and brought the money in their hands. She made him sleep on her knees. And she called a man and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. Then she began to torment him, and his strength left him. And she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” And he awoke from his sleep and said, “I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him. And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes and brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles. And he ground at the mill in the prison. But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.

Because his Philistine captors were apparently too dumb to keep their prisoner’s head nicely shaved!  D’oh!  A fatal mistake for them, as it turns out…

[to be continued]

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