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DVD Review
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Opera in Three Acts
Samson…………………………….Placido Domingo
Dalila………………………………Shirley Verret
The High Priest of Dagon………….Wolfgang Brendel
Abimelech………………………….Arnold Voketaitis
Chorus and orchestra of the San Francisco Opera
Conducted by Julius Rudel
(recorded in 1981)

ARTHAUS MUSIC DVD 100 202 [111 mins]
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This sumptuous 1981 production of Saint-Saëns’ single operatic success (his other ventures in the genre disappointed) catches Domingo in his lusty prime and Verrett, proud and seductive, as the vengeful Dalila.

Visually, the San Francisco production looks ravishing. The set designs are bold and striking. Dominating the set of Act I, is a huge idol of the Philistine’s heathen god, Dagon, standing outside a massive façade of their temple as Samson urges his despondent Israelites to throw off their yolk and rebel against Philistine oppression. (Domingo is in fine sabre-rattling form here pitched against the arrogant Philistine general, Abimlech [a venomous Voketaitis]). Then there is the voluptuous boudoir setting for the seduction scene in which Dalila at last manages to wrest the secret of Samson’s strength from him. Shirley Verrett manages to invest the famous aria, ‘Softly awakes my heart’ here with not only surface passion but, in her body language, a sense of duplicity too (although occasionally she is a bit stiff when she needs to concentrate on her phrasing and projection). The sparse setting of Act III, Tableau I, is dominated by a huge mill wheel to which a now-blinded and impotent Samson (his hair having been cut by Dalila) is shackled. He is full of remorse at having betrayed God’s trust - and his people. Tableau II of the final act is set in the Temple of Dagon – another magnificent set with another huge idol and two huge columns either side of a sacrificial pit. To these columns, a spiteful Dalila and an evilly triumphant High Priest chain Samson who prays to God for a miraculous return of his strength so that he might atone for his weakness in loving the treacherous Dalila. His prayers are answered and he is able to push aside the columns of the temple bringing down the building on top of the hedonistic Philistines thus ending the story and the opera. The destruction of the temple is very well stage-managed with the columns folding inwards and falling; and massive chunks of masonry plunging down (shown in back projection) as the panicking crowds flee as the light dims.

The costume designs are equally stunning and authentic-looking for the Israelites - based on the numerous pictures some of you will have become accustomed to from Sunday School bible classes. As far as the Philistine costumes are concerned, one supposes that the designers have used some imagination. The High Priest of Dagon (a suitably forbidding and oily performance from Brendel) has the most OTT gear. In the first act he has a huge head-piece so that he appears to be peering out of the head of some huge dragon-like beast. In Act III his costume is dominated by a huge crest spreading petal-like around the back of his head. The Philistines’ costumes in the bacchanal of the temple scene are provocative yet the dancing of the men – especially the lead – in the orgy ballet is rather limp – well this is San Francisco! However, Rudel ensures that at least Saint-Saëns seductive music touches ones senses.

The booklet notes that Saint-Saëns originally intended to write an oratorio around the subject of Samson and Dalila and "was no doubt inspired by his admiration for Georg Friedrich Händel and Felix Mendelssohn Barthody." But Saint-Saëns was finally persuaded by Ferdinand Lemaire, a Creole poet and husband of one of his cousins, to write an opera. This original intent suggests why the choral writing is so prominent and strong especially in Act I. The San Francisco singers acquit themselves well.

A sumptuous production of Saint-Saëns only real operatic success with Domingo in fine form and a seductive Dalila from Shirley Verrett.

Ian Lace

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