Thursday, May 07, 2009

Samson and Delilah: Netflix has a solid performance; in Belgium, an adaptation with switching sides!


Today (Thursday May 7) The New York Times Arts section has a review of a controversial adaptation on Camille Saint-Saens opera “Samson and Delilah” in Antwerp, Belgium, a review by Michael Kimmelman, where the Philistines (those “enemies” from Sunday school) are Israelis and the Hebrews are the Palestinians. That would unthinkable (referring to Joshua Cooper Ramo and his sandpiles) in the United States. But that is a clever mashup. And one can even extend the Biblical parable’s fascination with hair to the obsession with beards in much of patriarchal Muslim culture, where facial shaving is forbidden. The Times link is here.

Netflix offers (from Kultur video) the 1981 performance from the San Francisco Opera, conducted by Julius Rudel, with Placido Domingo and Shirley Verrett as the wayward lovers. The music seems surprisingly tame and mannered to me. We know that Saint-Saens was fascinated with Egyptian themes, as in his last Piano Concerto. The best music is probably Delilah’s famous scalar aria in Act II.

Rudel tells us that Saint-Saens almost wrote this as an oratorio, and notes that the French prefer mezzo-sopranos for their female leads, whereas Italian opera favors sopranos.

The Old Testament “parable” of Samson in Judges has always struck me as a potential commentary on fetishism. Samson’s secret strength and power was in his “hair” (at least not in his ability to mold space-time, like Clark Kent’s -- that’s the only way to go if you’re going to be superhuman). But this was his scalp hair, so the biological analogy doesn’t quite hold. Testosterone is supposed to increase body hair in some men (Domingo, oddly, shows off his chest in this DVD a lot), so the Biblical tale here is symbolic in as general a way as possible. Nevertheless (like Clark when he recovers from green kryptonite) Samson will get his powers back (after prayer to Jehovah) and pull down the temple. The major-key music toward the end seems repetitive and perfunctory (although there is a reference to a theme from the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and some interesting minor to major technical effects). As the temple falls down after Samson's Tug, the music crashes down on C Major orchestral chords.

I’m not aware that the story of Jacob and Esau has been put to opera, but it sounds like a good idea.

But so does an opera based on Smallville.

Attribution link for Wikimedia commons picture of Antwerp, Belgium is here. I passed through the city in May 2001.

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