August 6, 2017

Samson and Delilah and the "Seductive '70's"

Samson and Delilah by Guercino (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg)
About the title to this post – I’m talking about the 1870’s, specifically. Within the period from 1870 to 1877, three operas, each long since standard-repertoire staples, had their first performances. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, this trio is connected by the inclusion of scenes that are remarkable for both their similarities and the shocking effect they surely had on audiences of a century and a half ago.

The three: Aida (1870), Carmen (18750 and Virginia Opera’s opening production of the 2017-2018 season, Samson and Delilah (1877).
The point of commonality: in each opera, there is a scene in which a woman seduces a man into betraying his military duty, with disastrous consequences.

Weird, huh?

In 2017 we’ve long since become jaded to the femme fatale, wiggling her hips and making helpless men putty in her hands. A thousand movies and ten thousand TV shows have made her a familiar figure. But in the 1870’s? Theatrical audiences were used to the male characters doing all the seducing. From Don Giovanni (yeah, yeah, he had a pretty bad day in Mozart’s opera, but still – that catalogue had a buncha names in it, right?) to Edgardo to nerdy Nemorino to the Duke of Mantua, it was always the guys puttin’ on the moves on women who fell for their schtick.

But the Ethiopian princess, the wanton gypsy and the Philistine priestess brought us a whole new ballgame in the seduction department. Suddenly, it was the tenor’s turn to do some schtick-fallin’, ignoring any number of warning bells.

·         AIDA, unlike her sistren, is an unwilling seductress. She is guilted into manipulating her lover Radames by her father, who piles up the images of tortured countrymen to spur her into action. Her boyfriend is pretty much Caesar, Patton and Napoleon all rolled into one in the annals of Egyptian generals. When Aida tempts him into running away with her with romantic images of Ethiopia, she isn’t spinning a web of lies so much as describing a fantasy she desperately wants for both of them – in my opinion, anyway. Of course, Radames gets all excited and blurts out military strategy and it all goes to crap in a hurry. Aida experiences no satisfaction because she loves her victim.

·         CARMEN has no such patriotic issues motivating her seduction when she turns her attention to poor Don José. José actually suffers the indignity of TWO seductions! In the “Seguidilla” Carmen’s goals are simpler than Aida’s, and extremely short-term. She’s been arrested, she’s on her way to jail, and she doesn’t wanna. Also, her lizard-brain took note of José’s studied indifference during her exhibition in the “Habanera” earlier; she regards him as a challenge. Plus the whole “let-me-go” thing. Like Radames, José is betraying his duty to the army by giving in to Carmen, but it’s a very small-scale version of treason. Misdemeanor instead of felony, you might say. It’s in Act 2 that – doggone it! – he falls for it again; and this time, the stakes are higher. She seduces him right into desertion, a far bigger deal. José wasn’t executed for letting her go in Act 1, it was just a matter of a few months in the brig. But in the end, though the final curtain deprives us of seeing it, we know an execution is coming after all, just as it did for Radames. The other difference from Aida: Carmen is a sociopath: she feels nothing authentic for her victim; he’s a means to an end.

·         DELILAH also chooses a military leader to toy with: the Hebrew who uses donkey jaw-bones as his Weapon Of Mass Destruction: Samson. Like Aida, Delilah’s goal is to make the hero betray his countrymen; to allow an enemy state to rise up with the opportunity for victory. Like, Aida, Delilah is essentially a spy; unlike Aida, she is quite gung-ho about the assignment. Serious question: we never learn which side came out on top after Radames’s treason; did Egypt remain dominant, or did Ethiopia have a comeback? We sure do know how it turned out for the nation of Israel: they went right back into slavery, like a rebellious kid being sent to his room after staying out all night – at least until Samson pulled a super-strength rabbit out of his hat in Act 3.

But here’s what makes Delilah unique: she actively hates her victim; her seduction, replete with passionate declarations of “amour” is as phony as an eleven-dollar bill. Aida loves Radames; Carmen is interested in José in the moment of his seduction and for the duration of his usefulness to her. But when Delilah is free to say what she really means, she isn’t shy about expressing her complete loathing of him. And, importantly, the audience is fully aware of this animus PRIOR to her famous “My heart at thy feet” aria. Had there ever been this extent of female treachery before? Had a woman made love to a man with pure, unapologetic hatred for him in previous opera history?

Three female leads; three sexually-charged, red-hot seductions (okay, four, since Carmen did two); three soldier-boys whose moral fiber and military discipline turned to mush. So alike, yet with dramatically interesting nuances – and all within a handful of years.

In a future post, we’ll learn something about Camille Saint-Saëns’ real-life interactions with women in his private life that may shed light on his choice of Delilah for a portrait in music. Those interactions were……………………… complicated. Stay tuned!


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