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- A Second Book Of Operas - 10/31 -
father said unto him: "Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren or among all my people that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?" he did not know that "it was of the Lord that he sought an occasion against the Philistines." Out of that wooing and winning grew the first of the encounters which culminated in the destruction of the temple of Dagon, when "the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life." So his yielding to the pleadings of his wife when she betrayed the answer to his riddle and his succumbing to the wheedling arts of Delilah when he betrayed the secret of his strength (acts incompatible with the character of an ordinary strong and wise man) were of the type essential to the machinery of the Greek drama.
A word about the mythological interpretation of the characters which have been placed in parallel: It may be helpful to an understanding of the Hellenic mind to conceive Herakles as a marvellously strong man, first glorified into a national hero and finally deified. So, too, the theory, that Herakles sinking down upon his couch of fire is but a symbol of the declining sun can be entertained without marring the grandeur of the hero or belittling Nature's phenomenon; but it would obscure our understanding of the Hebrew intellect and profane the Hebrew religion to conceive Samson as anything but the man that the Bible says he was; while to make of him, as Ignaz Golziher suggests, a symbol of the setting sun whose curly locks (crines Phoebi) are sheared by Delilah-Night, would bring contumely upon one of the most beautiful and impressive of Nature's spectacles. Before the days of comparative mythology scholars were not troubled by such interpretations. Josephus disposes of the Delilah episode curtly: "As for Samson being ensnared by a woman, that is to be ascribed to human nature, which is too weak to resist sin."
It is not often that an operatic figure invites to such a study as that which I have attempted in the case of Samson, and it may be that the side-wise excursion in which I have indulged invites criticism of the kind illustrated in the metaphor of using a club to brain a gnat. But I do not think so. If heroic figures seem small on the operatic stage, it is the fault of either the author or the actor. When genius in a creator is paired with genius in an interpreter, the hero of an opera is quite as deserving of analytical study as the hero of a drama which is spoken. No labor would be lost in studying the character of Wagner's heroes in order to illuminate the impersonations of Niemann, Lehmann, or Scaria; nor is Maurel's lago less worthy of investigation than Edwin Booth's.
The character of Delilah presents even more features of interest than that of the man of whom she was the undoing, and to those features I purpose to devote some attention presently.
There is no symbolism in Saint-Saens's opera. It is frankly a piece for the lyric theatre, albeit one in which adherence to a plot suggested by the Biblical story compelled a paucity of action which had to be made good by spectacle and music. The best element in a drama being that which finds expression in action and dialogue, and these being restricted by the obvious desire of the composers to avoid such extraneous matter as Rossini and others were wont to use to add interest to their Biblical operas (the secondary love stories, for instance), Saint-Saens could do nothing else than employ liberally the splendid factor of choral music which the oratorio form brought to his hand.
We are introduced to that factor without delay. Even before the first scene is opened to our eyes we hear the voice of the multitude in prayer. The Israelites, oppressed by their conquerors and sore stricken at the reflection that their God has deserted them, lament, accuse, protest, and pray. Before they have been heard, the poignancy of their woe has been published by the orchestra, which at once takes its place beside the chorus as a peculiarly eloquent expositor of the emotions and passions which propel the actors in the drama. That mission and that eloquence it maintains from the beginning to the final catastrophe, the instrumental band doing its share toward characterizing the opposing forces, emphasizing the solemn dignity of the Hebrew religion and contrasting it with the sensuous and sensual frivolity of the worshippers of Dagon. The choral prayer has for its instrumental substructure an obstinate syncopated figure,
[figure: an musical score excerpt]
which rises with the agonized cries of the people and sinks with their utterances of despair. The device of introducing voices before the disclosure of visible action in an opera is not new, and in this case is both uncalled for and ineffective. Gounod made a somewhat similar effort in his "Romeo et Juliette," where a costumed group of singers presents a prologue, vaguely visible through a gauze curtain. Meyerbeer tried the expedient in "Le Pardon de Ploermel," and the siciliano in Mascagni's "Cavalleria rusticana" and the prologue in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" are other cases in point. Of these only the last can be said to achieve its purpose in arresting the early attention of the audience. When the curtain opens we see a public place in Gaza in front of the temple of Dagon. The Israelites are on their knees and in attitudes of mourning, among them Samson. The voice of lamentation takes a fugal form--
[figure: a musical score excerpt]
as the oppressed people tell of the sufferings which they have endured:--
Nous avons vu nos cites renversees Et les gentils profanants ton autel, etc.
The expression rises almost to the intensity of sacrilegious accusation as the people recall to God the vow made to them in Egypt, but sinks to accents of awe when they reflect upon the incidents of their former serfdom. Now Samson stands forth. In a broad arioso, half recitative, half cantilena, wholly in the oratorio style when it does not drop into the mannerism of Meyerbeerian opera, he admonishes his brethren of their need to trust in God, their duty to worship Him, of His promises to aid them, of the wonders that He had already wrought in their behalf; he bids them to put off their doubts and put on their armor of faith and valor. As he proceeds in his preachment he develops somewhat of the theatrical pose of John of Leyden in "The Prophet." The Israelites mutter gloomily of the departure of their days of glory, but gradually take warmth from the spirit which has obsessed Samson and pledge themselves to do battle with the foe with him under the guidance of Jehovah.
Now Abimelech, Satrap of Gaza, appears surrounded by Philistine soldiers. He rails at the Israelites as slaves, sneers at their God as impotent and craven, lifts up the horn of Dagon, who, he says, shall pursue Jehovah as a falcon pursues a dove. The speech fills Samson with a divine anger, which bursts forth in a canticle of prayer and prophecy. There is a flash as of swords in the scintillant scale passages which rush upward from the eager, angry, pushing figure which mutters and rages among the instruments. The Israelites catch fire from Samson's ecstatic ardor and echo the words in which he summons them to break their chains. Abimelech rushes forward to kill Samson, but the hero wrenches the sword from the Philistine's hand and strikes him dead. The satrap's soldiers would come to his aid, but are held in fear by the hero, who is now armed. The Israelites rush off to make war on their oppressors. The High Priest comes down from the temple of Dagon and pauses where the body of Abimelech lies. Two Philistines tell of the fear which had paralyzed them when Samson showed his might. The High Priest rebukes them roundly for their cowardice, but has scarcely uttered his denunciation before a Messenger enters to tell him that Samson and his Israelitish soldiers have overrun and ravaged the country. Curses and vows of vengeance against Israel, her hero, and her God from the mouth of Dagon's servant. One of his imprecations is destined to be fulfilled:--
Maudit soit le sein de la femme Qui lui donna le jour! Qu'enfin une compagne infame Trahisse son amour!
Revolutions run a rapid course in operatic Palestine. The insurrection is but begun with the slaying of Abimelech, yet as the Philistines, bearing away his body, leave the scene, it is only to make room for the Israelites, chanting of their victory. We expect a sonorous hymn of triumph, but the people of God have been chastened and awed by their quick deliverance, and their paean is in the solemn tone of temple psalmody, the first striking bit of local color which the composer has introduced into his score--a reticence on his part of which it may be said that it is all the more remarkable from the fact that local color is here completely justified:--
[figure: a musical score excerpt, sung to the words "Praise, ye Jehovah! Tell all the wondrous story! Psalms of praise loudly swell!]
"Hymne de joie, hymne de deliverance Montez vers l'Eternel!"
It is a fine piece of dramatic characterization; which is followed by one whose serene beauty is heightened by contrast. Dalila and a company of singing and dancing Philistine women come in bearing garlands of flowers. Not only Samson's senses, our own as well, are ravished by the delightful music:--
Voici le printemps, nous portant des fleurs Pour orner le front des guerriers vainquers! Melons nos accents aux parfums des roses A peine ecloses! Avec l'oiseau chantons, mes soeurs!
[figure: a musical score excerpt sung to the words "Now Spring's generous band, Brings flowers to the land]
Dalila is here and it is become necessary to say something of her, having said so much about the man whose destruction she accomplished. Let the ingenious and erudite Philip Hale introduce her: "Was Delilah a patriotic woman, to be ranked with Jael and Judith, or was she merely a courtesan, as certain opera singers who impersonate her in the opera seem to think? E. Meier says that the word 'Delilah' means 'the faithless one.' Ewald translates it 'traitress,' and so does Ranke. Knobel characterizes her as 'die Zarte,' which means tender, delicate, but also subtle. Lange is
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