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The Bible story of Samson is an odd source of inspiration for an opera. Among the more violent stories from the Book of Judges, it celebrates a freakishly strong man with an unparalleled knack for killing people, who massacres a thousand Philistines and ultimately commits a suicide attack in a house of worship.
Presented as a redemption story, the key to his fall from grace is, of course, a woman, who seduces and betrays him. This opens the opera up to charges of misogyny. But the target of God’s vengeance is not just Delilah, but a false idol: “I worship another god,” Delilah coos to Samson, “the god of love.” Samson and Delilah is fundamentally a morality tale of religious duty—one could say fanaticism—over all earthly delights, principally romantic love.
So there is some irony that one of Western music’s harshest indictments of romance is a lush French opera written by Camille Saint-Saëns at the height of Romanticism. Saint-Saëns was an admirer of Wagner, and it shows, especially in traces of The Flying Dutchman that run through Act 2. Samson and Delilah has a syrupy and somewhat corny score, with lusty double entendre-laden arias from Delilah (“My heart opens to your voice like the flowers open to the kisses of the dawn”) designed to pull at your, er, heartstrings.
You get the impression Saint-Saëns’ heart was more with his music than the subject matter. He didn’t originally envision Samson and Delilah as an opera but an oratorio. He abandoned it partway through after an early workshopping of the opera drew a negative reaction from staunchly secular French audiences annoyed by its religious theme. It was the Germans, not the French, who first embraced it in all its pious, sexy, and bloody glory.
Washington National Opera’s production hits all the right notes: heartfelt singing, lavish staging, and dynamic dance numbers. Anchoring the production as Delilah is J’Nai Bridges, a mezzo with a rapidly ascendant career trajectory. In Sunday’s opening performance, she took a while to warm up, with an audible division between her upper and lower registers, but eased powerfully into some of the opera’s most memorable arias, notably “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix.” Her partner, Roberto Aronica’s Samson, also started hesitantly at first and came on strong later with a rich, if somewhat anodyne tenor. Conductor John Fiore capably led the orchestra through Saint-Saëns’ score in as unobtrusive a fashion as possible, never smothering the arias and duets but sometimes overshadowed by the choruses.
Samson and Delilahfits well within a proud operatic tradition of titillating the audience with sex and violence for three hours and then allowing them to go home feeling noble by tacking on a perfunctory moral lesson at the end. So too does Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which WNO is staging concurrently with Samson and Delilah. In Samson, the lesson—worship the one true God—is about as perfunctory as it can be, underneath all that lusty singing and spectacular dancing by scantily clad Philistines. Orientalism is cranked up to 11 in this opera, with stock-exotic motifs played on castanets that sound more Spanish than Canaanite, and outfits that bring to mind Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
And throughout, there’s one side that’s having all the fun, and it’s not the one we’re supposed to be rooting for. The real lesson seems to be, who wouldn’t want to be a pagan? They dress better, party harder, and clearly enjoy themselves more than the Israelites they are oppressing. As soon as Samson brings the party crashing down, the opera’s abruptly over, an acknowledgement that Saint-Saëns knew what really pleases a crowd. Redemption is all well and good, but no one likes a killjoy.
To March 21 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.
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