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Samson et Dalila - a review by chorister Tom Reed
In a language where the names "Samson," "Saint-Saëns," and the number "cinq-cent" all sound the same, it is no wonder that the French composer chose to deliberately mispronounce his own name. Otherwise he might well have been remembered as Camille Five-Hundred, the composer of Saint-Saëns et Dalila.
The story comes from the biblical conflict between the ancient Hebrews of Gaza and the Philistine invaders. The Egyptians, who weren't big on vowels, called the Philistines the Prst (from "Prst"). From this the Hebrews somehow got the P'lishtim from "P'lesheth." The Greeks couldn't pronounce either name, so the Romans took a stab at it and came up with the Philistinæi from "Palæstina." From this we get the names "Philistine," "Philistines," "Philistia," and "Palestine." It's confusing. Just keep in mind that they were Philistines from Philistia, not Palestinians from Philistine, and under no circumstances should they be called Philistinians, as this is the name of the Phyllis Diller fan club. All you really need to know is that it's an opera about big hair which Saint-Saëns composed because he lost most of his own at an early age and never got over it.
Act I - As the curtain rises on the first opera of the fall season, the chorus is already depressed. Draped across the steps in front of the leaning temple of Dagon, a rickety structure that looks as if it might collapse at any moment, they moan about their persecution. As Samson tries to snap them out of it, the Philistine commander Abimélech emerges from the temple with a bunch of nasty-looking Supers. He quickly puts the Hebrews in their place. "Encor ce vil troupeau d'esclaves." ("Just another troupe of vile chorus slaves.") While he's taking swipes at everyone, an observant young(ish) Hebrew notices a solar eclipse taking place on the scrim behind them. They take this as a sign to rise up. The heavily armed Supers have never seen the chorus so inspired before, and instantly flee to the relative safety of the tipsy temple, leaving Abimélech to the tender mercies of the mob. They flatten him with a high note and dash off into the wings with Samson to run amuck. Discovering Abimélech's body, the High Priest blows a gasket and orders his timorous Supers to find and destroy them. "Écrasez sous vos coups ce peuple révolté bravant votre courrous!" ("Crush those revolting chorus people!")
Returning to the temple after a long day of burning crops, Samson finds the Philistine temple girls enjoying their dinner break. Delilah, a slutty bottle brunette, is envious of Samson's luxurious hair and is dying to know what products he uses to achieve that full-bodied, lustrous sheen. She attempts to seduce him right there on the temple steps in front of everyone. "Pour toi j'ai couronné mon front des grappes noires du troène." ("For you I combed my bangs with dark grape juice.") One of Samson's friends warns him, "Evite et crains cette fille étrangère." ("Careful, that girl's a little weird.") But Samson is dazzled. "Voile ses traits dont la beauté trouble mes sens!" (Wowza!) The game is on. He joins her in the tipsy temple for a torrid tryst.
Act II - The High Priest wants to discover the secret of Samson's strength, and urges Delilah to trick the secret from him. More interested in finding out who does his hair, she readily agrees. "Je sais combien il m'aime!" ("I'll comb it out of him!") She invites him to come keep her warm in her drafty tent. In the most tender aria of the opera she applies her feminine wiles. "Ah, réponds à ma tendresse... Verse moi l'ivresse." ("Let's get drunk.") However, Samson seems oddly reluctant. When one thing doesn't lead to another she threatens to kick him out in the middle of a thunderstorm unless he tells. Finally he confesses that it's just a wig. Delilah is dumfounded. "Ton secret? Ce secret qui cause mes alarmes!" (That's it?! A lousy wig?!) In a rage she scratches his eyes out, and the newly emboldened Supers drag him off to jail.
Act III Scene 1 - Samson, now wigless and blind, has found a job in the prison bakery grinding the wheat that he burned in Act I.
Scene 2 - Dawn in the temple of Dagon - In anticipation of Samson's execution the chorus Philistines have spent a restless night lounging on the crooked stone staircase in front of the statue of the god Dagon. The name Dagon literally meant "Sunfish, though the god found that he commanded much more respect when portraying himself as an enormous minotaur in a skirt with pigs' feet and bad nails. Not terribly attractive, but his followers just adored him. As dawn breaks the booze is flowing, the flames are leaping, and the dancers are performing the Gaza strip. The chorus, sumptuously decked out in gold and silver threads, is itching to see Samson get it. Yes, Delilah is about to have her revenge. As she and the High Priest taunt Samson, the people sing "Dalila venge en ce jour son dieu, son peuple, et sa haine!" ("On this day Delilah avenges her god, her people, and her henna!") Samson cleverly decides to upstage her by requesting that he be chained between the two main pillars center stage. But as he squeezes out his big money note, the tug on the chains is too much for the styrofoam pillars, and the entire temple comes crashing down in a big thud. Too bad we'll never know how it was supposed to end.