Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson and Dalila, the composition of
which he completed in 1876, has had a poor press over the years.
It got off to a bad start due to the initial lack of interest
in an opera with a biblical subject. Criticism of Saint-Saëns
from Tchaikovsky and Debussy also did the composer no favours.
Yet the opera proved itself at a highly successful première in
1877 at the Grand Ducal Theatre. The debate still simmers as to
whether the work is an opera or an oratorio. Acts 1 and 3 lean
towards the oratorio whilst Act 2 is more operatic. Nonetheless
it is a fine work, and it is here given a superb performance.
Opera Bastille version makes for an exciting performance from
the very beginning, with a thrilling build-up of tension at
the opening, getting it off at once to a gripping start. The
chorus and orchestra are excellent, performing, as they do,
with both good technique and also with passion and fire. The
soloists are also all good. Placido Domingo is as robust as
ever, and Waltraud Meier (who plays Dalila) has a strong, rich
and mature voice that works very well here.
Myung-Whun Chung brings out the opera’s drama brilliantly, and
manages to the make the piece work as a whole – lessening the
stylistic disparity between the Acts, and creating a powerful
and convincing whole. The conclusion – when Samson, with his
strength restored, brings the temple crashing down – is majestic
and overwhelming – symptomatic, in fact, of the entire performance.
This is both an opera and a recording that will please both
those familiar with Saint-Saëns’ often under-rated music, and
those new to him and wishing to explore further.