September 19, 2017

What the ending of Samson and Delilah tells us

I know I said I was done with posts about Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah, but I took a few days off, the production's opening night in Norfolk is just ten days away, our next show is not here until late November, and........

..........there's more to say.

Dagon. His temple? Rubble.
I wish to focus on the end of the opera. (SPOILER ALERT: Samson knocks down the Philistines' temple of Dagon, it crushes everyone and they all die. Including, possibly, random orchestra members.)

How do we characterize this ending? It's a bit simplistic to say that opera endings are either happy or tragic, but they tend to skew one way or the other. In fact, it will be fascinating, in coming posts, to consider the supposedly "happy" ending of Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West - that happens to be a problematic ending.

But back to Samson. On the one hand, if we could interview Samson moments after he pushed those pillars, just before everything went black, he would pronounce himself highly satisfied. "Hey", he might affirm, "I atoned for my weakness, I punished that evil wench Delilah, I salvaged something from the series of bad decisions I made, and I accomplished God's will: freeing the Israelites. What's wrong with that? I'm good. Bye, now."

So - happy? Because Justice was done?

Compare this finale to that of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Like Delilah, the Don richly deserves the fate in store for him. He's a liar, a seducer and a murderer, and he's unrepentant about all of it. Cue the demons, cue the flames, drag his worthless carcass down to Hades.

BUT - that's not the end of the opera! There follows an epilogue in which the other principal characters assemble to reflect on what has happened. Now freed from Giovanni's villainy, they plan their individual futures and remind us in the audience that bad people always get what's coming to them. They say all of this happily! Da Ponte's libretto has them assert "ripetiam allegramente l'antichissima canzon" (We HAPPILY repeat this old, old song").

Never mind that Mozart's genius has screwed with us, manipulating into liking Giovanni more than we should, and making us mindful that, in spite of everything, we miss him. Officially, this epilogue firmly places the opera's ending in the hippy-hoppy-happy category.

With Mozart in mind, I find it a bit troubling that Saint-Saëns did NOT append a similar epilogue to Samson. Wouldn't it have been natural to end the opera with a scene of the now-liberated Hebrew people rejoicing at the end of their enslavement? For an opera that often sounds like an oratorio anyway, why not conclude with a joyful chorus in which everyone agrees that, while ol' Samson may have let them down in the past, he sure did step up and do the right thing in the end.

YAY, SAMSON! We're FREE! No more bad times, no more enslavement - it's MILK & HONEY, BABY!

But that doesn't happen. No epilogue to tell us that we just saw a happy ending.

And that strikes me as significant.

For one thing, consider the Israeli people. If you know anything about the Old Testament, or Jewish history, this was far from the end of hard times for God's chosen people. The saga of the Hebrews is one of pendulum swings from extremes of being in Jehovah's favor to being persecuted.

Heck, the nations surrounding modern-day Israel STILL wouldn't mind if they were wiped off the face of the earth.

So Samson's final act functions as his redemption, but it's FAR from guaranteeing his compatriots a blissful future. And, pardon me, but I find nothing intrinsically "happy" in the deaths of three thousand people (that stat is courtesy of the Book of Judges), even if they were slave masters worshiping a false idol. They were human beings.

The opera ends in violence; only the swift dropping of the curtain spares us the sight of the dead and dying. There's no one left to sing about what just happened; the Hebrew people, we gather, sneak away from Gaza to an uncertain status.

I'm calling it: the ending is tragic. Justice? Yes. Happy? No.

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