Saint-Saëns Samson & Dalila
You cannot have everything; new and extensive comparisons for this reassessment of the Samson situation suggested that, as with most things in life, compromises have to be made. Davis is here attempting the opera again on disc after the passage of nine years. His approach hasn’t changed much, though speeds seem to have slowed even from his temperate ones on the Philips set. He likes to linger over much of Delilah’s music but where drama and/or excitement are the order of the day, as in the Bacchanale, he provides just the right elan and he is always aware of the score’s subtle crafting.
This time he has the opulent voice and style of Borodina as compared with Baltsa’s leaner, more idiosyncratic manner. Borodina makes the more rounded sounds and so is easier to listen to but Baltsa, even more Meier on the Chung version, uses the text more positively to convey the temptress’s wiles and scheming, providing the interest missing in Borodina’s more conventional and admittedly voluptuous approach. Try all three in the passage ‘Se pourrait-il’ just before Samson enters in Act 2 and you can judge what I mean.
Where Samson is concerned Cura provides the truly heroic timbre and dramatic declamation his part requires, and he is as sensitive as perhaps any Samson on disc, especially in Act 3 where he sings ‘Vois ma misere’, and the asides while taunted by Delilah later on, in a mezza voce as if communing with himself. In Act 2 he responds to her false expressions of love with true passion in his tone. Yet in some ways Carreras, on the earlier Davis set, though voicing the role with less security, has you even more involved in Samson’s predicaments by virtue of his well-known, plaintively attractive timbre. Domingo (Chung), though not as individual as either of his rivals, is unequalled in the dignity he brings to the part. Vickers for Pretre in 1962 remains an immense presence, and his Delilah, Rita Gorr, offers a luscious, warmly sung interpretation.
Although Lafont is an idiomatic High Priest, Fondary (Chung) is also that and has the steadier voice, and Jonathan Summers, as on stage for Davis, is splendidly vicious on Philips. Among the smaller roles on the new set, Robert Lloyd stands out for his grave, sonorous utterance as the Old Hebrew. By a small margin I prefer the chorus and orchestra on the older Davis set, not least because, as recorded, they are there in better focus, but the margin is small and oughtn’t to be a deciding factor in making a decision.
While enjoying the new set, particularly Cura’s contribution, I didn’t find it as involving or theatrical as either the earlier Davis or the Chung, mainly because the Delilahs there are so much more vital than Borodina, but if you find the latter’s sensual tones are sufficient in themselves this set may be for you: away from comparisons it has much to offer. Both the Pretre set (which ought now to be at mid price) and the historic Fourestier, which has the best Delilah of all in Bouvier but a confined recording, show the advantages of the old French style of interpreting the work, avoiding the self-indulgence and slow speeds now fashionable but not sanctioned by the composer.'