Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Samson et Dalila - Opera in three Acts (1877) [119:20]
Samson – José Luccioni (tenor); Dalila – Hélène Bouvier (mezzo); High Priest – Paul Cabanel (baritone); Abimélech – Charles Cambon (bass); Old Hebrew – Henri Médus (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Paris Opera/Louis Fourestier
rec. Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, 17-27 September 1946
PREISER PAPERBACK OPERA 20061 [64:21 + 54:59]
Not every old recording is a classic; some are just old. In the present case I am unsure into which category to place it. Its main attraction is its sheer Frenchness. Too many operas are recorded with international casts whose efforts may at times miss the essential flavour of a piece. A work like “Pélleas et Mélisande” is very dependant on a true declamation of its text, and I am suspicious of any version not employing native French speakers. I am not sure that “Samson et Dalila” quite falls into that category, but certainly it does benefit from the clear and free way with words that all the cast have. Even if, like me, your French is at best basic, hearing it sung in this way does add greatly to the conviction of the performance. I assume that Preiser’s title for this series – Paperback Opera – implies a cheap and basic version but I should warm anyone new to the work that to get real enjoyment from it you will need to be able to follow the text. Only a basic synopsis is included here although the full libretto is relatively easily to obtain.
The two principals are another great strength of this recording. Both are clearly at home in their roles and know how to get the best out of them. That said, other Samsons have made more of the character’s strength and various changes in mood and intention, and other Dalilas have been able to sound more seductive in the second Act. Neither is seriously deficient, however, and their use of the language largely compensates for any failings. The secondary characters do what they are required to do at least adequately, although in truth no performance will stand or fall by these roles. The orchestra and chorus can fairly be described as occasionally rough but idiomatic, the chorus with greater emphasis on the rough. The recording however is distinctly rough even for its time, and in an opera whose scoring contains many carefully worked effects this is a serious deficiency. I have not heard either the original records or other transcriptions so that I cannot comment on the transfers as such.
In summary, “Samson et Dalila” may not be amongst the greatest of operas, and may indeed be very static for much of its length, but it does have passages of great beauty or drama. This recording would make an inexpensive reminder of its impact to those who know it already, but I am not convinced that it would give anyone coming to the work for the first time a real impression of its strengths.
The two principals are a great strength here and the orchestra and chorus are occasionally rough but idiomatic.