Saturday, March 09, 2002

[3/9/2012] Preview: These two Mystery Openings introduce works that I for one can't wait to hear more of (continued)


First a lone bassoon, then a pair of horns, then three flutes soon overlapped by pairs of clarinets and bassoons, and then the first of those shuddering deep thuds from the cellos and double basses -- the haunting melancholy opening of Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. Georges Prêtre conducts the Paris Opera Orchestra in an outstanding 1962 EMI recording we'll be hearing more of. (You can click to enlarge the score page.)


This is the Prelude to Amilcare Ponchielli's La Gioconda, performed by the Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala conducted by Antonino Votto in September 1959. It's an opera that was surely well-known by all the Opera Quiz panelists who didn't recognize the opening phrases, at least as played "on the Knabe." My only guess is that they just didn't connect music like this with the music they associated with these operas.

I had this great idea of jumping into Act I to hear how the "big tune" of the Prelude is actually heard in the opera. But we have to much to do tonight with our actual target piece.


I would have to guess that this opening stumped those quiz panelists for much the same reasons as the Gioconda Prelude -- notably that this isn't the kind of music they think of when they think of Samson et Dalila. Let's listen to it again, but this time let it continue on a bit (in the same recording). You'll recall my saying that Opening A was clearly leading into something else.

CHARLES CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS: Samson et Dalila: Act I, Orchestral introduction; Chorus of Hebrews, "Dieu! Dieu d'Israël" ("God! God of Israel!")
CHORUS OF HEBREWS [behind the curtain]: God!
God of Israel! Hear the prayer
of your children, imploring you on our knees;
take pity on your people and our misery!
Let our sorrow disarm your wrath!

Bavarian Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, cond. Philips, recorded February 1989
[UPDATE: I've amended the text to reflect that, according to the score, the curtain is still down at this point.]

I think it's worth noting in passing that the German orchestra and chorus, which you might think out of their element in such a very French opera, in fact play and sing the music notably better than most French orchestras and choruses. I guess I'm suggesting that Saint-Saëns imagined an intensity and depth, in both musical texture and performance sensibility, that perhaps comes more easily to German players and choristers.


Let me caution that the music we're skipping over really is extremely important music, but we'll plug that gap on Sunday. We're picking up at this point because as far as I know this is the only portion of this opening scene that the great French tenor Georges Thill recorded. And then, because the 1930 choral work and recording don't exactly do the music justice, we're going to hear a sonically more up-to-date version, with a tenor who, from a strictly vocal standpoint, is actually better-suited to the monumental role of Samson than Thill, though in matters of actual delivery he's a long way from being a Thill. I think you'll easily hear what I mean.

SAINT-SAËNS: Samson et Dalila: Act I, Samson, "L'as-tu donc oublié?" ("Have you then forgotten him?")
SAMSON: Have you then forgotten him,
the one whose power
made itself your ally?
He who, filled with clemency,
has so often for you
made his oracles speak,
and relit your faith
in the fire of his miracles?
He who in the ocean
knew how to carve a passage
for our fathers fleeing a shameful slavery?
THE HEBREWS: They no longer exist, those times
where the God of our fathers
protected his children,
heard their prayers!
SAMSON: Wretched ones, be quiet!
Doubt is blasphemy!
Let us implore on our knees
the Lord who loves us!
Let us put back in his hands
the care of our glory,
and then let us gird our loins,
certain of victory!
He is the God of combat!
He is the God of armies!
He will arm your arms
with invincible swords!
THE HEBREWS: Ah! The breath of the Lord has passed into his soul!
Ah! Let us chase from our hearts
an unworthy terror!
And let us walk with him
for our deliverance!
Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah!
Jehovah guides him
and gives us hope!

Georges Thill (t), Samson; orchestra, Eugène Bigot (?), cond. EMI, recorded 1930

Mario del Monaco (t), Samson; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. RCA, recorded 1958

Maybe we could have this in more plausible French, and with more plausible choral singing (with not at all terrible conducting? (The younger Plácido Domingo's French certainly wasn't word-perfect but was fairly credible, and more importantly, he could actually make something of French texts and the language brought out some really beautiful colors in his voice. Strangely, in later years his French seemed to me to get steadily worse)

Plácido Domingo (t), Samson; Orchestre de Paris Chorus, Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim, cond. DG, recorded July 1978

Of course, Domingo's voice had nothing like the sheer weight and impact without which a lot of Samson's music simply doesn't register. Let's dip back in history to that famous Otello, Ramón Vinay (in, unfortunately, sound AM-broadcast quality preserved on poor-quality ancient discs).

Ramón Vinay (t), Samson; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Emil Cooper, cond. Live performance, Nov. 26, 1949

Finally for now let's have our first hearing of my close to one-and-only Samson, Jon Vickers, from the 1962 EMI Samson recording (with Rita Gorr as Dalila) that I said we'd be hearing more of. Vickers's Samson, like all of his roles in all of his languages, unfortunately comes fitted out with idiosyncratically odd vowels, which matters in this scene in particular, because the sound of the beautiful words provided by librettist Ferdinand Lemaire is an important part of the effect of the scene, but Vickers's feel for the declamatory intent built into the words and music is unmatched in my experience, and of course he has a voice of the enormous scale needed to really sell it. Plus here we get some top-quality, dramatically alive choral singing and orchestral playing in excellent stereo sound.

Jon Vickers (t), Samson; Choeurs René Duclos, Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris, Georges Prêtre, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 25-Oct. 12, 1962


. . . that we're going to begin exploring on Sunday, and believe it or not, in that first main post devoted to this scene we're not going to get any farther into it than we did tonight, but we will fill in the gaps and also kick the tires a little. This is a scene for which I have no words, a scene for which words like "amazing" and "astonishing" and "unbelievable" fall lamentably short.


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