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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Samson et Dalila opera in three acts (1877)
Plus: César Vezzani, (ten) and Marie Duchêne (mezzo) in Act 2 scene 3 and César Vezzani in the ‘Mill Scene’
Samson, René Maison (ten); Dalila, Gertrud Wettergren (mezzo); High Priest, Ezio Pinza (bass); Abimelech, John Gurney (ten); Old Hebrew, Emmanuel List (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Maurice Abravanel
Rec. from Live Broadcast, December 26th 1936. Vezzani and Duchêne scenes recorded around 1930


Saint-Saëns considered the role of Dalila so central to the plot that he is said to have thought of calling the opera after her. Her two arias from Act 2 had been heard in private performance five years before the staging of this the composer’s first opera. Samson and Dalila was first conceived, in the 1860s, as an oratorio. However, it was championed in Germany as an opera and received its first performance, sung in German, on December 2nd 1877 conducted by Liszt. The Paris premiere was given at a minor theatre in 1890 and met with great success,. It was introduced to the more prestigious ‘Paris Opera’ two years later and garnered over one hundred performances in the following five years. It was anticipating its five hundredth airing at the time of the composer’s death in 1921 (booklet note pp.5-6). Following concert performances in New York it was first presented at the ‘Met’ in 1895. The theatre opened its 1915-1916 season with a new production featuring Caruso as Samson. The performance on these discs features the conducting of Maurice Abravanel making his Met debut at the age of 33, then the youngest conductor in the company’s history. However, he only conducted at the theatre for two seasons finding the restrictive rehearsal times inimical to the realisation of his musical vision. His interpretation as represented here is musical and well shaped, giving both lyrical and dramatic impetus. Some commentators (p.12) have found his interpretation to be the most persuasive and vibrant on disc. Given the relatively thin orchestral sound I would not be so definitive. After all, the work has drawn interpretations from several notable conductors in the past forty years or so, and their superior sound gives far greater impact to the work’s often heavily-scored and complex music.

Of the singing, the most distinguished comes from Ezio Pinza as the High Priest. A baritone normally sings this role, but I must say that Pinza’s steady, sonorous, tightly focused singing (CD1 tr. 22) gives the part the importance it deserves. When the High Priest taunts Samson to sing to the Philistines of his lover (CD2 tr. 16) he is particularly effective. I do not find René Maison’s Samson all that vocally appealing. As one would expect of a Belgian-born singer his French is excellent and his diction is such as to express the nuances of the words. However, his dramatic tenor does not lay easily on my ears. He has a tendency to squeeze the note as he puts pressure on the voice (CD 1 tr. 29). Elsewhere he becomes unduly lachrymose. Much of what Maison lacks in style and tone can be heard in the singing of César Vezzani in the appendix which includes Act 2 scene 3 and the ‘Mill Scene’ from Act 3 (CD 2 trs. 22-32 and particularly the last three). The comparisons can be extended to that between the lyric mezzo of the Swede Gertrud Wettergren and the fuller-toned Marie Duchêne. Certainly Wettergren embarks on ‘Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (CD 2 tr. 2) steadily and with appealing phrasing, but there is no great sense of the meaning of the words. The same is true whether she is tempting Samson (CD 1 tr. 17) or haggling with the High Priest. At the end of the day her voice lacks the ideal weight of tone and sexual sensuousness that is essential to the role.

The booklet note by London Green is interesting but not up to the standard I have come to expect in this series. Likewise the track-related synopsis is somewhat terse. Richard Caniell is open regarding the interpolation of missing words at disc breaks in the originals and also groove defects that are audible in the passage succeeding the Act 3 ballet. I have not been able to compare the generally acceptable sound here with that on the Walhall issue of the same performance. This issue is recommendable for Pinza enthusiasts or collectors drawn to the complete Act 2 scene 2 sung by César Vezzani and Marie Duchêne. It is claimed (p.22) to be the first time this has been available on LP or CD.

Robert J Farr

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