Opera Profile: Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Dalila”

By Logan Martell

Making its premiere on December 2nd, 1877, “Samson et Dalila” is a grand opera composed by Camille Saint-Saëns. The libretto, penned by Ferdinand Lemaire, is adapted from the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah found within the Old Testament. Saint-Saëns describes the project’s conception as a result of working with Lemaire, who had recently married one of Saint-Saëns’ cousins, after reading his verses and being taken with his skill. While Saint-Saëns originally pitched it to Lemaire as an oratorio, the librettist would be the one to convince him that the story of Samson and Delilah would be better as an opera.

While the 1870 performance of Act I was not positively received by music critics, it was the support of Franz Liszt that would encourage and ultimately enable Saint-Saëns to be produced in Weimar, Germany. The plot focuses more on the human aspects of Samson’s character, portraying him as a charismatic leader and leaving aside his tremendous feats of physical strength.

Short Plot Summary

The opera begins outside a temple of Dagon where a gathering of Hebrews pray to Jehovah for freedom from the Philistines. The governor of the Philistines, Abimelech, taunts the Hebrews over their helplessness, claiming it as proof of the superiority of Dagon. The only Hebrew not cowed is Samson, who inspires his tribesmen into rebellion. Samson leads them to victory by killing Abimelech with his own sword. The resistance from the Hebrews only increases as they go on to destroy the harvest of the Philistines, earning the contempt of the High Priest of Dagon.

Samson is soon met by Dalila, who says that he his strength has won her heart as she tries to lure him to her home in the valley of Sorek. Warned of the danger Dalila will bring, Samson prays for the strength to resist her temptations. After a dance and a song where she expresses her loneliness, Samson succumbs to her charm and readies to head to her home. Dalila relishes in her victory, as Samson will no longer be present to lead another Hebrew uprising. While the High Priest offers her gold in exchange for Samson, Dalila reveals that she is driven solely by the desire for revenge against the Hebrews and their god. While Samson tries to take his place for the upcoming battle, Dalila asserts her charm over him, feigning tears until Samson chooses her over his people. When she persuades him into revealing the source of his strength, his long hair, she has Philistine soldiers surround and seize him.

Now blind, weakened, and enslaved, Samson laments what will befall the Hebrews without him. He is led to the temple of Dagon as a sacrifice to mark the victory of the Philistines. Before he is made to kneel, Samson prays to God for strength once more. Standing between the pillars of the temple, Samson’s wish is granted and he topples the pillars, bringing the temple crashing down on everyone gathered, including himself, as the opera closes.

Watch and Listen

Plácido Domingo and Olga Borodina have been some of the foremost interpreters of the title roles in all of opera history. They have performed it on numerous occassions, including the instance in this video.


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