Savage Transcendentalism

Saint-Saens never ceases to amaze

There's still hope for those of you who've always wanted to try writing classical music—provided you're younger than, say, 35. After all, French great Camille Saint-Saens didn't pick up a pen until his mid-30s. Oh, but wait: he was a child prodigy, organist at the church of Madeleine in Paris, subject of Proust and great friend of Franz Listz, who even called Saint-Saens the finest organist in the world. In quotes. Forget I said anything.

Next week is practically Saint-Saens week, with Opera Pacific next week mounting his masterpiece SamsonandDelilah,a biblical-themed opera that tells the story of Delilah's determination to discover the secret to Samson's invincible strength and mercilessly avenge the Philistines. It's a marvel this opera even exists, let alone is any good—in the late 1800s when he wrote it, religious themes were box-office poison (guess nothing's changed). Saint-Saens broke with convention to ask Ferdinand Lemaire, a young Creole from Martinique who dabbled in poetry, to put together an oratorio. Lemaire dragged his feet, begging Saint-Saens to up it to an opera—who wouldn't?—and the two produced a piece that went on to gather dust throughout the Wagnerian era. Only today is it properly unleashed to knock the socks off audiences, as it was originally meant to do. Liszt enthusiastically mounted the piece in Weimar, Germany, in 1877, but it took 15 years before the full opera finally reached the Paris Opera House (just 10 years after electric lighting arrived) in 1892. The opera has since run 1,000-plus times at the house.

For Opera Pacific, Allan Glassman (an accomplished tenor with long résumé, including the Met and LA Opera) plays Samson, a Zigfried-type role that requires a big, meaty voice. Melena Kitic sings the Delilah mezzo role. There's plenty for them to do; Saint-Saens' music is exceptionally beautiful, with well-known choral themes. It opens, in fact, with Samson singing against a backdrop of choral prayer. Elsewhere, the author uses instruments such as the tambourine for exotic color and prominent percussion to suggest a Near East locale. It's alternately savage and transcendental, broadly theatrical, and dramatic till the ending, with its architectural disaster. There's something here for everyone.

OPERA PACIFIC'S SAMSON AND DELILAH at ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, SEGERSTROM HALL, 600 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 830-6361; WWW.OPERAPACIFIC.ORG. THURS., FEB. 24 AND SAT., 7:30 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. $35-$185.

 
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