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

Brothers and Sisters of the Congregation!

It is time to end our (rather lengthy) sermon on the personalities of Samson and Delilah.  In conclusion:  God is good, and Women are evil!  Especially those polytheistic temptresses who worship scaly fish gods and ruin good men, and stuff like that.  Truly these harlots are abominations in the sight of the Lord!

The canonical Bible story makes it fairly clear that Delilah was just a callous bitch who sold her lover out for money:  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.”

“You need to buy a better conditioner!”

In the operatic version, on the other hand, Delilah is not in it for the money.  The Philistine High Priest approaches her and offers her the silver, but she refuses.  She is conflicted.  A part of her still even loves Samson.  Another part of her hates him. She explains that her motive for betraying Samson is of a different nature:  She seeks revenge.  Revenge for Samson’s treatment of her people?  Or for something more personal?  This non-canonical version only hints that there was some backstory there, they had a relationship, he left her; she has never forgiven him for that.  She is basically a scorned woman, who wants to see her ex come crawling back to her on his hands and knees.  So that the cops can gouge out his eyes!

Eyeless in Gaza…

Speaking of gouged eyeballs, this episode proves that the Philistines were also cruel, and they also committed war crimes.  I understand why they needed to capture this dangerous outlaw, but, Dudes, it’s a war crime to torture your POW!  But I still root for the Philistines in this war because they didn’t go around (that we know of) proclaiming that they were morally superior to the other side.  It’s just tribal conflict after all.  The side one supports is a function of the family one was born into.  Neither side should claim the high ground.  Except that one side did, and 2000 years later, we who were born into the world of so-called “Christendom” are still oppressed by these sanctimonious cattle-herders with their ancient taboos, their boasts of moral superiority, and their self-righteous rants.

… Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves …  (John Milton, “Samson Agonistes”)

As mentioned by Milton, after gouging out his eyes, the Philistines put Samson to work grinding grain at the mill.  Classical paintings generally depict prison wardens standing next to Samson (possibly with whips) and supervising his work.  However, at the Met opera, we see Samson laboring by himself, unsupervised by any supernumerary; just pulling that millstone around and around, like a donkey.  Well, maybe the supervisor was there, and then sneaked out for a coffee break, and Samson didn’t realize, being blind and all.  Still, his work ethic is commendable, and I am sure he will get a good performance review.  Just one quick break for an aria, and then back to the grind…

The Samson Option

Before getting to the climax of the story, I must mention that, in our modern era, the Israeli military has a nuclear deterrent strategy known as the “Samson Option“.  According to which, if outnumbered by conventional Arab forces and on the brink of defeat, Israel will not hesitate to employ nukes, and even blow itself up rather than surrender, if their statehood comes into question.  Just like Samson bringing down the pillars of the Philistine temple, killing 3000 Philistines and himself in the process!  Pretty scary stuff.

I would never want to see anything like this happen in real life, but in the theater I kind of wanted to see mass destruction.  I think I was not alone in wanting to see a full bang-up climax of the show, complete with falling pillars and the Dagon temple collapsing into dust, fake-killing everyone on the stage.  In fact, this is one of the elements of the Bible tale which makes it, in the end, actually a pretty good story (lame riddles aside), with a reasonably exciting and even somewhat ironical ending:

Now the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to rejoice, and they said, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand.” And when the people saw him, they praised their god. For they said, “Our god has given our enemy into our hand, the ravager of our country, who has killed many of us.”  And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, that he may entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he entertained them. They made him stand between the pillars. And Samson said to the young man who held him by the hand, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, that I may lean against them.” Now the house was full of men and women. All the lords of the Philistines were there, and on the roof there were about 3,000 men and women, who looked on while Samson entertained.

Although the Bible is not all that clear about the nature of entertainment provided by Samson (did he sing a little song? Perform a tap dance?), the opera gives us the famous Act III Bacchanale.  Which is a fancy Greek word meaning “Sexy Dancing”.  Which, in this staging, was a modern dance with nude-like costumes and bisexual gyrations.  I’m not a fan of modern dance, but this one was actually pretty good, I have to admit, and ended with the traditional pile-on orgy, while the High Priest and the Philistine ladies looked on approvingly.  They were seated at their tables drinking wine, like in a cafe.  Dinner theater, in other words!

Disgusted by this mass display of sexiness, Samson has finally had his fill of these perverts:

Then Samson called to the Lord and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life.

The Met picked this split-Dagon design over the traditional pillars.

Samson the Terrorist kills everybody, Yay!  There is a moment where he is led out onto the stage by a small boy, and Samson is singing about how he plans to kill everybody.  I kept waiting for him to turn and whisper to the child:  “Quick, get out of here while you can!”  But he doesn’t.  He doesn’t really give a s**t about anyone, not even the kid who has been helping him get around!  And yet an even bigger crime is that the Met set designers could not find it in themselves to build actual pillars that could be brought down in a theatrical manner.  I have said this before, and I will say it again:  These set designers could learn something from Broadway set-change technology.  I recently saw a Broadway play called “The Play That Goes Wrong“, and they have the entire set falling down around the actors.  It’s perfectly safe, so long as people are trained to stay on their mark.  And even if a few supernumeraries should get hurt in the process… well, they are replaceable!

But no…  The Met Opera set designers are too conservative, too set in their ways, to build such a dynamically-moving set.  So, we got no pillars, no collapsing infrastructure.  The Met gave us a giant Dagon statue that was already split into two halves, and I think we in the audience were expecting something very big and important to come out of this bilith…. but no…

The final climax was more of an anti-climax:  Samson prays to Yahweh, busts his chains apart, and then … fizz….  Nothing happens.  Well, okay, there is, like, a big lightning flash, and then the curtain goes down.  Was that intended to represent Israel’s nuclear option?


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