Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila
The Gramophone Choice
Plácido Domingo ten Samson Waltraud Meier mez Dalila Alain Fondary bar High Priest Jean-Philippe Courtis bass Abimelech Samuel Ramey bass Old Hebrew Christian Papis ten Messenger Daniel Galvez-Vallejo ten First Philistine François Harismendy bass Second Philistine Chorus and Orchestra of the Bastille Opéra, Paris / Myung-Whun Chung
EMI 0881982 (124‘ · DDD · S/T/t). Buy from Amazon
This is the most subtly and expertly conducted performance of this work to appear on CD, excellent as others have been in this respect, and also the best played and sung. Chung’s achievement is to have welded the elements of pagan ruthlessness, erotic stimulation and Wagnerian harmony that comprise Saint-Saëns’s masterpiece into a convincing whole. His success is based on the essentials of a firm sense of rhythm and timing allied to a realisation of the sensuousness and delicacy of the scoring. Whether in the lamenting of the Hebrews, the forceful music written for the High Priest, the heroics of Samson, the sensual outpourings of Dalila or the empty rejoicing of the Bacchanale, he and his orchestra strike to the heart of the matter – and that orchestra plays with Gallic finesse, augmented by a dedicated discipline.
The choral singing, though too distantly recorded, is no less alert and refined, with a full range of dynamic contrast. Meier’s Dalila is a fascinating portrayal of this equivocal anti-heroine, seductive, wheedling, exerting her female wiles with the twin objects of sexual dominance and political command. All her sense of purpose comes out in her early greeting to the High Priest, ‘Salut à mon père’; then she’s meditative and expectant as Dalila ponders on her power at ‘Se pourrait-il’. The set numbers are all sung with the vocal ease and long phrase of a singer at the zenith of her powers. She makes more of the text than Domingo, who sings in his familiar, all-purpose style, admirable in itself, somewhat missing the particular accents brought to this music by the great French tenors of the past. They exist no more and one must salute the sterling and often eloquent tones of Domingo.
Alain Fondary is superb as the High Priest, firm and rich in tone, commanding and vengeful in delivery: the most compelling interpreter of the part on disc, tout court. Ramey is luxury casting as the Old Hebrew but, as this is a part once sung by Pinza, Ramey probably felt he wasn’t slumming it. After an unsteady start, he sings the small but important role with breadth and dignity. As Abimelech, Jean-Philippe Courtis makes much of little. Apart from the two reservations already made, the recording is admirable, with a wide and spacious sound and the soloists forward but well integrated. This must now be the outright recommendation for this work.
Jon Vickers Samson Rita Gorr Dalila Paris Opéra Orchestra / Georges Prêtre
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 567598-2 (121‘ · ADD · S/T/t). Recorded 1962. Buy from Amazon
A classic recording with Rita Gorr’s magnificent Dalila towering over the performance. Vickers, too, is superb. The sound isn’t perfect but don’t let that deter you.
James King Samson Christa Ludwig Dalila Munich RSO / Giuseppe Patanè
Sony Opera House 88697 45118-2 (122’ · ADD · S). Buy from Amazon
Not the most idiomatic of recordings but there’s some classy singing here, though one would have liked Ludwig to take a few more risks. Patanè presides over everything with passion.