I’ve been listening to Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ dangerously seductive take on Samson and Delilah.

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921)

On my long journey through the chronology of classical music, often documented in these blogs, I have just reached the end of the year 1877 with Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns  greatest operatic hit, Samson and Delilah which was the last great French grand opera to remain in the modern repertoire and which contains one of the most famous and, possibly, one of the sexiest operatic arias in the history of the entire genre. That, of course, is sung by the Bible’s principle seductress the Philistine femme fatale, Delilah who seduces Israel’s strong man, Samson by discovering, when she gets him to bed, the secret of his strength which is in his long hair, well the Bible says it so it must be true. 

The Folly of Samson by Stephen Gjerton
It’s a sexy subject, for sure, the exotic female who is the universal tart, the temptress from a foreign land who, as in so many other stories of this type, finds her finest hour when seducing a gallant but decidedly gullible hero. The American realist painter Stephen Gjerton captures some of the story’s mix of sex, guilt and violence when Samson, betrayed, has an enforced haircut, is blinded and then led away by the Philistine soldiers summoned by the wicked Delilah. The Bible has a lot more sex in it than people like to admit.

Gilbert Py (Samson) and Katherine Pring (Delilah) with John Tranter (the Old Hebrew) in Opera North 1977 debut.

Opera singers often struggle to look as sexy as the parts they are required to interpret, especially singers with big enough bodies to produce the sounds grand opera demands. I have only seen the work once in production and that was back in 1977 when England’s newest opera company, Opera North, opened at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, with a gala performance of Saint-Saëns’ piece starring the personable enough French heroic tenor, Gilbert Py as Samson and the voluptuously endowed mezzo soprano Katherine Pring as Delilah. Monsieur Py, a suitably big man with a big voice was not on his best form that night but he went on to be one of the main interpreters of the part and can be found on Utube in much better voice.

It’s a strangely hypnotic opera and I have been trying to work it out all weekend. The Bible is quite clear about who we are supposed to side with in this conflict between the captured Children of Israel and the Philistine hordes just as it is firm in its praise of Samson’s heroism, strength and self-sacrifice. It is also very disapproving of sexy Delilah and, I assume, it expects us to disapprove too though I suspect more than a few saintly monks over the centuries have envied Samson his time in Delilah’s perfumed boudoir. So too, I suspect, do most of the gentlemen in the audience whenever the seduction scene is enacted in the opera house.

It is confusing, of course. We know that Delilah doesn’t mean what she says when she sings to Samson about her love for him but we, like him, for that moment, believe her. If she doesn’t know about the kind of love she sings about then Saint-Saëns  certainly does. The piece should be X-rated for people of a puritan disposition. Maybe the composer knew more than made him happy about sexual desire when he wrote this opera about the tragic consequences of erotic attraction. His frequent and secretive holidays in Algeria, after he left his wife, may have opened his eyes to his own guilty interest in exoticism.

Here is an English translation to the aria: Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix. You can hear it below.

My heart opens to your voice
Like the flowers open
To the kisses of the dawn!
But, oh my beloved,
To better dry my tears,
Let your voice speak again!
Tell me that you are returning
To Delilah forever!
Repeat to my tenderness
The promises of old times,
Those promises that I loved!
Ah! respond to my tenderness!
Fill me with ecstasy!
Dalila! Dalila! I love you!

Like one sees the blades
Of wheat that wave
In the light wind,
So trembles my heart,
Ready to be consoled,
By your voice that is so dear to me!
The arrow is less rapid
In bringing death,
Than is your lover
To fly into your arms!
Ah! respond to my tenderness!
Fill me with ecstasy!

Dalila! Dalila! I love you!

The opera is not just its hit song though but without that steamy moment, the rest of the piece is mostly interestingly orchestrated bluster mixed with rather clever pastiches from Bach and Handel’s oratorios. It is difficult these days to go along unquestionlingly with Samson and the Hebrew slaves in this Gaza located story with its denouement when Samson, like a modern-day suicide bomber, believing himself inspired by God, pulls down the temple of Dagon onto the heads of everyone inside, whether Philistine soldiers, high priests or voluptuous dancing maidens. I’m sorry to say, when the roof caves in, I’m hoping Delilah escapes.

You have to listen to the music though but don’t say I didn’t warn you about its seductive power. Here is one of the mistresses of operatic seduction, the late Shirley Verrett as Delilah and the sensational, and in my opinion, greatest of Samsons, the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, here caught near the end of his long and illustrious career. I have no problem in understanding why he fell for Madame Verrett’s charms. If you want to buy a recoding of the whole opera, the best one is still the great 1962 EMI recording conducted by Georges Prêtre with John Vickers and the Belgian mezzo, Rita Gorr.

I’ve now moved on from 1877 to 1878 excited to hear some of my favourite pieces of music by Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I might tell you about the experience some time.



My first novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, is published  on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.

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