As I prepare to see the San Francisco Opera production of Samson and Delilah next Sunday, it is hard to forget that this opera embodies what is probably the most well-worn cliché of the music literature, at least over the course of the twentieth century when it was worked to death by just about every comedian on stage or screen (including the animated ones in the latter case). This moment is all the more ridiculous, since the "official" title of this particular musical episode is "Bacchanale," in spite of the fact that Bacchus-worship was not a practice of the Philistines. (Indeed, the libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire makes it clear that this scene is celebrating Dagon, which is one of the details from the Book of Judges that is kept intact.) However, once we get beyond the hackneyed, this opera reminds us that spectacle was not an invention of Cecil B. DeMille, or even D. W. Griffith, and that "grand" was quite a meaningful adjective in the phrase "grand opera!"
We are also reminded that music was just as much a business in late nineteenth-century France (or, for this particular opera, Germany) as it was about three-quarters of a century later when Lennie Tristano was bemoaning the sorry state of jazz in the Forties of the twentieth century. However, if we get beyond the eye candy on the stage and even the "star turns" of the leading characters, this opera provides us with many opportunities to see that Camille Saint-Saëns was just as a serious about his music as Tristano was about his. We get to hear Saint-Saëns display his command of both counterpoint and choral writing with a refinement that we miss if we limit our attention to the "Bacchanale" or other his spectacles, such as the second piano concerto or the "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso." Then, if we listen "behind" the mezzo-soprano's delivery of Delilah's seduction aria ("Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix"), we hear some wonderfully delicate management of orchestral texture and chromatic lines that, in other hands, would have been written off by my own composition teachers as "slimy."
This leaves us with an impression of a Saint-Saëns who was able to achieve a dialectical synthesis of the ideals of his art form with the pragmatics of the business that provided him opportunities to compose. He could produce music that, as Roger Sessions would put it about a century later, he could listen to (and present to his students) "without blushing." If the general audience cared only about seeing a sexy Delilah, lapping up orgiastic choreography, and finishing it all off with the collapse of the Philistine temple, that was their affair. Today's audiences tend to have the same interests; and, if that benefits the budget of an opera company, we are all the better for it. The rest of us can seize the opportunity to listen to the music that probably gave Saint-Saëns, himself, the greatest satisfaction; and we, too, benefit.