Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris on October 9, 1835. A generally talented person, he started taking piano lessons aged two and wrote his first work at three. At twelve, he started studying organ and composition at the Paris Conservatory. Finally aged twenty, he had won the support of Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod, Rossini, and other notable figures. Other interests of him were geology, languages and astronomy as well as traveling which he did extensively in the last period of his life. During his life time he was celebrated in England and the United States as France’s greatest living composer leading to a triumphant concert tour in the U.S. in 1915. He died on December 16, 1921, in Algeria.
An anomaly among French composers of the nineteenth century, he wrote in all genres, including opera, symphonies, concertos, songs, sacred and secular choral music, solo piano, and chamber music. Mainly known for works such as The Carnival of the Animals, Danse Macabre or his Piano Concert no. 2, the French composer wrote 10 Operas in total, of which Samson and Delilah is the most famous.
Samson and Delilah
The story of Samson and Delilah can be found in the book of Judges, chapters 13 to 16. When Camille Saint-Saëns started to work on it in 1867, he intended to create an oratorio. His librettist Ferdinand Lemaire, however, saw the dramatic value of this tragic story and convinced the composer to turn it into an opera. It took Saint-Saëns a long time and the support of Franz Liszt to eventually finish it in 1876. The world premier took place at the Weimar Opera in 1877. In 1882 a second German production in Hamburg followed. Eight years later the work finally reached his home country at Rouen and was first performed in French. After a performance at the Paris Opéra in 1892 the opera managed to get international attention and nowadays belongs to the most often presented work of Saint-Saëns.
Opera vs. Oratorio
Ever since Samson and Delilah’s first performances Opera lovers have been debating about the works musical genre. Camille Saint-Saëns called it an Opera but isn’t it more an oratorio, a sacred concert piece for soloists, chorus and orchestra? Its topic is biblical, the male characters are only two-dimensional and especially the first chorus sounds very much like Mendelsohns Elijah. But it is Delilah that makes this work an Opera. She is three-dimensional, a character of depth whose motivations are more psychological than an oratorio-bound biblical character would allow. Her music is ’french’ - fluid, lush, romantic and brilliantly orchestrated with a touch of fantasy and worldly sensuality. She also is and this is rather rare for the main female character a mezzo-soprano.
But see for yourself, here is the most famous aria from Samson and Delilah ’Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ sung by the great Olga Borodina:
Our Samson and Delilah
Nadia Krasteva who has previously been seen at the Vienna State Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper Berlin, will make her role debut as Delilah. She will soon be seen as Amneris at the Theatro alla Scala and is certainly someone to look out for. If you ask her Samson and Delilah is ’one of the most famous and beautiful operas ever written’ and we can not wait to hear the ’rich, smoky colors and earthy sensuality (in) her voice’ (The Chicago Tribune).
Clifton Forbis returns as Samson, whose “…brilliant voice and acting (as Samson) conveyed the inner torment" (SignOnSanDiego).