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It’s easy to forget the problems there might have been in bringing an opera such as Samson and Delilah to the stage.
First, there were the various challenges of matching the composer and librettist. Then, there was the need to find a suitable theatre (Saint-Saëns’s good friend Liszt was instrumental in this instance, leaning on old colleagues in Weimar). Next, you needed to think about quite how you depict the destruction of the holy temple without actually destroying the opera house. And after all that, there was the little matter of censorship, because the subject is biblical and the powers-that-be were very nervy about letting it on stage at all.
When it was due to transfer to London’s Covent Garden, the Lord Chamberlain slapped a ban on the whole opera, stopping all but concert performances until 1909 – some thirty years after its original Weimar run. So, English audiences were deprived of seeing, in their fully staged glory, some of the most beautiful moments in French opera and, indeed, Saint-Saëns’s only regularly performed stage work.
This opera contains the sumptuous Bacchanale and arguably the most beautiful tune ever written for a mezzo, ‘ Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘softly awakes my heart’).
José Cura (tenor) as Samson; Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano) as Delilah; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Colin Davis (conductor). Erato: 3984247562.