|On Sunday, June 5, 2005, Concert Opera Boston sponsored a concert performance of Camille Saint-Saëns's opera Samson et Dalila.
This stirring drama of the biblical story of Samson's fateful involvement
with the temptress Dalila contains some of the most beautiful and famous
arias ever written as well as a tempestuous seduction scene and magnificent
choruses. New York City Opera star Michael Hayes sang Samson and
Metropolitan Opera mezzo soprano Victoria Livengood sang Dalila.
Singing the role of the Old Hebrew was John Ames, who thrilled audiences
in 2003 in Chorus pro Musica's performance of Berlioz's L'Enfance du
Christ. They were joined by Chorus pro Musica and a superb orchestra, all
under the director on Maestro Jeffrey Rink.
And the press wrote:
Michael Hayes: Career highlights have included Don José in Carmen with New York City Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Portland Opera, and Cleveland Opera; Cavaradossi in Tosca with Florida Grand Opera, Fort Worth Opera, and Kentucky Opera; Radames in Aida with Manitoba Opera and Portland Opera; title role in Otello with Opéra de Nantes; title role in Les Contes D'Hoffmann and Erik in Der Fliegende Holländer with Fort Worth Opera; title roles in Faust, Les Contes D'Hoffmann, and Werther with Portland Opera; title role in Les Contes D'Hoffmann with Cleveland Opera; Calaf in Turandot with Knoxville Opera and Edmonton Opera; Rodolfo in La Boheme with New York City Opera, Portland Opera, and Austria’s Kamptal Festival; Schwalb in Hindemith’s Mathis Der Mahler and Danilo in The Merry Widow (telecast) with New York City Opera; fully-staged Das Lied Von Der Erde with L’Opéra de Rouen (and also in Paris); Turridu in Cavalleria Rusticana with OperaDelaware; the Duke in Rigoletto with Cleveland Opera and Dayton Opera; Tichon in Katya Kabanova with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis; Steva in Jenufa with Sarasota Opera; title role in Otello and Canio in Pagliacci with Washington D.C.’s Summer Opera Theatre. Concert highlights have included Radames in Aida with L’Orchestre National de Lyon and Mississippi Opera; Steva in Jenufa with Washington Concert Opera; title role in the final scene of Siegfried with the Nashville Symphony; and title role in Weill’s The Protagonist with the American Symphony Orchestra. more
Victoria Livengood: Career highlights for this Grammy-nominated artist have included over 100 appearances at the Metropolitan Opera including the title role in Carmen, Herodias in Salome, Preziosilla in La Forza Del Destino, Giulietta in Les Contes D'Hoffmann, Maddalena in Rigoletto, Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus, Hélène in War and Peace, Sonetka in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Waltraute in Die Walküre, Jocasta in Oedipus Rex with the Salzburg Festival; title role in La Senorita Cristina with Madrid’s Teatro Real; Baba the Turk in The Rake's Progress with the Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires) and Vancouver Opera; Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus with the Teatro Municipal (Santiago); Sesto in La Clemenza Di Tito with L’Opéra de Nice; title role in The Medium, Ortrud in Lohengrin, and the Secretary in The Consul with Italy’s Spoleto Festival; Meg Page in Falstaff with San Francisco Opera; Marina in Boris Godunov with Washington Opera; Charlotte in Werther with Seattle Opera; Dalila in Samson et Dalila with Baltimore Opera; Azucena in IlTravatore with Portland Opera; Gertrude in Hamlet with Florida Grand Opera; and nearly 150 appearances as Carmen with the opera companies of Köln, Portland, Boston, San Diego, Cincinnati, Edmonton, and West Palm Beach, among others. Her discography includes Menotti’s The Consul for Chandos, and Grammy-nominated Desire Under the Elms with the London Symphony for Naxos. Her solo releases include Piercing Eyes for Albany Records. more
Philip Candilis: Baritone Philip Candilis has studied with the eminent baritone Robert Honeysucker for the past four years, reviving a passion that had lain dormant while he completed medical training. Dr. Candilis also studied voice with the late Todd Duncan—Gershwin's Porgy and the first black american to perform with the New York City Opera. Candilis, a physician-ethicist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, began studying music at age six with pianist Katherine Homer Fryer, daughter of Metropolitan Opera contralto Louise Homer. His first appearance as a vocal soloist came at age seventeen at the National Cathedral and Washington Bach Festival. As a member of Todd Duncan's studio in Washington, D.C., Candilis appeared as a principal with Choral Arts Chamber Chorus in a televised performance at Wolf Trap, in a performance of Schubert lieder on WGMS radio, and in operatic roles from Verdi to Humperdinck. As a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, Candilis directed the N.I.H. Singer's group of healthcare colleagues performing for the patients, families, and communities of the National Institutes of Health. In Massachusetts Dr. Candilis is a frequent performer with Chorus pro Musica and Concert Opera Boston.
Notes on “Samson et Dalila”
Of the thirteen operas Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) completed, only Samson et Dalila has enjoyed substantial success. Originally conceived as an oratorio (a work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra on a religious theme), the opera is based on the Old Testament story recounted in the Book of Judges, chapters 14–16. Saint-Saëns’s librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire, suggested that he abandon the idea of an oratorio and write an opera instead, even though Biblical themes were not considered appropriate for staged works in the Paris of the time. Saint-Saëns may have been attracted by the greater fame and fortune possible for a successful opera composer. Already known as a pianist and organist, and a prolific and highly successful composer in the genres of orchestral, instrumental, chamber, and choral music (his most famous works being his Symphony no. 3—the so-called Organ symphony—and the Carnival des animaux), Saint-Saëns had written only one opera, Le timbre d’argent, when he began writing Samson et Dalila in 1867, and it had not yet received a performance.
After composing an aria for Dalila and duet with Samson, which would figure in the second act, Saint-Saëns put the project aside. A meeting with Franz Liszt in Weimar, where Saint-Saëns had gone to see the premiere of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, encouraged him to complete his opera, which he did while on a trip to Algiers. When he returned to Paris, Saint-Saëns’s friend, the now-retired mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, participated in a performance of act two at a friend’s home in Croissy, with the composer at the piano. A concert performance of act one followed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1875. This, apparently, was not well received by the critics. Several reasons may be suggested for this lack of enthusiasm: besides the fact that it was considered sacrilegious to stage biblical stories, the work did not conform to the traditional five-act form of French grand operas, as epitomized by the operas of Meyerbeer, and Saint-Saëns was seen more as a symphonist than an opera composer. Even though Halanzier, the director of the Paris Opéra, attended Viardot’s performance of the second act, the complete work was not to be seen in Paris for many years. The finished work saw its first performance (in German) at the Hoftheater in Weimar, Germany, on 2 December 1877, Liszt having arranged the production. The cast included Auguste von Müller (Dalila) and Franz Ferenczy (Samson), under the direction of Eduard Lassen. Its first performance in France was at Rouen on 3 March 1890; it was first staged in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Eden later that year, and it was finally seen at the Opéra on 23 November 1892 in a performance under the supervision of Saint-Saëns conducted by Edouard Colonne. Over the next thirty years it would be performed in that theater more than five hundred times.
The first American performance was held at the French Opera House, New Orleans, and it was seen in a concert version at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1892. The first of several productions at the Metropolitan Opera was held on 2 February 1895, with a cast including Eugenia Mantelli and Francesco Tamagno (who had created the title role in Verdi’s Otello), with the French basso Pol Plançon singing both Abimélech and the Old Hebrew. There is some evidence that the sets had been borrowed from some other opera, and at the second performance that season the work was given in concert, with the ballet sequences omitted; in this form the work traveled to Boston, where it was performed on 3 March 1895.
It arrived at Covent Garden in London, also in concert, the following year, a performance that proved a disaster when the French cast learned it was to sing the work in English and refused to perform. It was not staged in London until 1909, having been banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of its religious subject. When the Metropolitan Opera next mounted the work, on opening night of its 1915–1916 season, the cast included Margarete Matzenauer, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato under Giorgio Polacco in a production that marked the beginning of the opera’s successful place in the repertoire.
After the numerous setbacks it suffered in its early years, Samson et Dalila has become a staple of most opera companies, and it has served as a vehicle for singers including Louise Homer, Risë Stevens, Rita Gorr, Fiorenza Cossotto, Marilyn Horne, and Denyce Graves (Dalila), Giovanni Martinelli, Ramon Vinay, Richard Tucker, Jon Vickers, and Placido Domingo (Samson), and Giuseppe de Luca and Leonard Warren (the High Priest).
Following Samson et Dalila, Saint-Saëns wrote several more operas, none of which has enjoyed success. These include La princesse jaune (1872), Étienne Marcel (1879), Henry VIII (1883), Proserpine (1887), Ascanio (1890), Les Barbares (1901), Hélène (1904, written for Nellie Melba), L’ancêtre (1906), and Déjanire (1911). The failure of these works is generally blamed on Saint-Saëns’s lack of a strong sense of theater, a problem that is less damaging to the oratorio-like Samson et Dalila, which is also greatly helped by its three sensually beautiful arias for Dalila, a dramatic aria for Samson, and a ballet sequence that has enjoyed a successful career for itself as a concert piece. His minimal theatrical sense and a certain emotional reticence arguably mitigated against success in writing operatic works. Certainly he lacked both the grandiosity of Meyerbeer and the subtle characterizations of Massenet, to mention only two of the successful opera composers of his time. What he was able to bring to his operas was a skill for orchestral and melodic color, a high level of workmanship, and a sophisticated exoticism derived perhaps from his frequent travels to such places as Sri Lanka and Algeria.
The libretto differs from the biblical story in a few respects. Samson’s numerous attempts to conceal the secret of his strength are not included in the opera, and the crucial revelation by Samson that his strength resides in his hair occurs offstage. The opera portrays the two main characters more as conventional operatic characters than as representatives of two warring ethnic groups in the context of the oppression of one group by the other, and the motivations operate at the level of individual psychology, with the characteristic dramatic themes of seduction and betrayal. But the emotions of the characters are expressed in melodies of exquisite tenderness. And the score does rise to a climax worthy of the epic story with the collapse of the temple on Samson and the Philistines.
The opera has long been a star vehicle for mezzo-sopranos, thanks largely to its three stunning arias, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” “Printemps que commence,” and “Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse.” Although the three arias for Dalila and Samson’s “Vois ma misère, helas” were frequently recorded in the earliest days of recorded sound, with noted contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink recording “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” as early as 1903 and Francesco Tamagno recording “Arretez, o mes frères” the same year, the opera did not receive a complete recording until 1946, under Louis Fourestier and the forces of the Paris Opéra, with soloists Hélène Bouvier and José Luccioni. This recording is still available, in Naxos’s “Great Opera Recordings” series. Other notable complete recordings include those by Rita Gorr and Jon Vickers under Georges Prêtre, and Waltraud Meier and Placido Domingo under Myung-Whun Chung.