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In 1867, Saint-Saëns' initial idea for a dramatic work on the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah was to set it as an oratorio. But when he enlisted Ferdinand Lemaire to help on the libretto, Lemaire persuaded him to try it as an opera. The composer began with Act II, the pivotal seduction and betrayal, but after private piano performances baffled everyone who heard it, Saint-Saëns broke off work on the project. The staging of his opera La princesse jaune in 1872 inspired Saint-Saëns to resume work on Samson and Delilah. He did not finish it until 1876, and when no French theater was interested in the new work, the premiere was given by Franz Liszt in Weimar in 1877. Samson and Delilah did not begin provincial performances in France until 1890, and did not reach the Paris Opera stage until 1892.
It has remained in the repertory ever since, however, the only one of Saint-Saëns' numerous operas, ballets, and other stage works to do so. The opera is a dazzling virtuoso and expressive vehicle for the two leads, and is admired for its combination of brilliant sound and dramatic emotion. Those qualities are quite evident in the famous Bacchanale, the orgiastic, percussion-driven dance that precedes Samson's destruction of the Philistine temple in Act III.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.