Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Saint-Saëns's Samson and Dalia?

Marianna Tarasova and Torsten Kerl
Flanders Opera Production
(Image from New York Times)

As with religion and politics, art and politics are intertwined -- as are all three, for that matter. Yesterday, I blogged about a Milton List discussion of Samson as a 'suicide bomber', and I discovered today that the impetus for that discussion came from a current production of Saint-Saëns's opera Samson and Dalia.

Michael Kimmelman tells us that "In Belgium, Samson Gets a Makeover" (New York Times, May 6, 2009), for Saint-Saëns's "Samson et Dalila" had its premiere recently in a production directed by the Israeli Omri Nitzan and the Palestinian Amir Nizar Zuabi, a partnership bound to raise eyebrows -- and expectations that this production might be overtly political. Of course, there always was a political aspect to the story of conflict between Hebrews and Philistines:
Ordinarily, Saint-Saëns's "Samson et Dalila" is a harmless, second-rate melodrama with a couple of crowd-pleasing numbers. It tells the biblical tale of the Hebrews under Philistine occupation in Gaza, who, thanks to Samson, rise up, only to be enslaved again after Dalila, Samson's Philistine lover, betrays him.

The opera ends when the Philistines celebrate their victory in the pagan temple of Dagon by mocking Samson, now blinded and shorn of the hair that gave him his strength. He calls on God one last time to help him topple the pillars that bring the temple down on his enemies and himself.
As noted by the reviewer, Mr. Kimmelman, little imagination is required to find a parable for today's Middle East, so there's no need to belabor the point. This production, however, feels the need to do so:
Mr. Nitzan and Mr. Zuabi . . . turn the Hebrews into Palestinians, the Philistines into Israelis, and Samson into a suicide bomber, donning a dynamite-loaded vest when the curtain falls.
So that's where the image of Samson as 'suicide bomber' came from! I had thought that the Milton List was simply using a metaphor, but the image was borrowed from this final view of Samson as the curtain falls.

Since the Israeli-Palestinian issue is so highly charged, reviews will often follow the reviewer's political position. Obviously, I've not seen this production, and it'll never come to Seoul, but even Kimmelman -- who seems to sympathize with Palestinians (e.g., "Rage is a perfectly sane response to the Israeli occupation.") -- hints that the production is terrible:
Jews, in fancy dress, dance atop a shiny, black, two-tiered set, oblivious to the swarm of robed Palestinians under their feet. In another scene Dalila's Jewish handmaidens, in red underpants, sprawl on their backs, legs spread in the air, helping to seduce Samson. Samson and Dalila court by pointing a pistol at each other. Young Israeli soldiers clad in black humiliate blindfolded Palestinians and shoot a Palestinian child, who reappears as a kind of leitmotif during the opera like the holy spear in "Parsifal." Then, for the appalling bacchanal in the last act, a disaster in most productions, Israeli soldiers dance orgiastically with their phallic rifles.

That scene was too much even for the polite Belgian crowd on opening night. A smattering of boos sprinkled down on the dancers. Otherwise the performance, dully sung, received several rounds of generous applause. This is Western Europe.
Generous applause for a "dully sung" opera, but even for the 'Western Europeans', the didacticism was sometimes too much. Hence the boos.

The production was controversial even before it opened in Antwerp, for posters advertising the opera showed a Palestinian boy preparing to throw a stone, a political message not lost on the local Orthodox Jewish community, whose neighborhood is literally "a stone's throw" from the opera house itself. Kimmelman reports that at the public round table discussion just prior to the production's opening, a fight nearly broke out between a local Jewish businessman and the director of the Flanders Opera, Aviel Cahn (himself Jewish):
Red faced, spewing insults and standing nose to nose with the Flanders Opera’s general director, the businessman predicted the production would stir up anti-Semitism, which festers just below the surface here, he said, to which the flustered impresario blurted out that if the situation for Jews were really so precarious here, they should leave.
That retort was way too much for Kimmelman, who remarks "Oy" and observes that Cahn "would have done better to thank the man [not only] for believing that opera matters so much," but also "for not punching his lights out."

Agreed. After all, where are Antwerp's Jews supposed to go?

To Israel?

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At 7:46 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I was hoping for a music review.

At 7:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I wasn't at the production, but even if I had been . . . I'm too unlettered in music for a competent review.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:06 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I guess I am not really into history for I never see the need to make these comparisons in somebody's else's work. Didn't someone make a production of Shakespeare's Richard III in a Nazi like setting? It is like trying to make every event the same. Not exactly what I mean, but can't put it together now.

I do think that Arthur Miller's The Crucible achieves a different purpose. It is also his own work.

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that I saw that production of Shakespeare's Richard III in a Nazi-like setting. I was living in Australia at the time. It was a bit over the top. Sometimes, these applications work, but I think that they work best if they're kept subtle.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Practically every time a stage production or movie comes out, the author complains of the changes made in the original story. The movie director claims his producer's privilege to enhance the tale, or to promote his own agenda.
Unfortunately, the authors of the Biblical account, and the Sampson and Delilah, (or Samson and Dalia), stories aren't around to critique this latest travesty.

At 5:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran wrote:

"Unfortunately, the authors of . . . the Sampson and Delilah . . . stories aren't around to critique this latest travesty."

Uncle Cran, are you claiming that God's gotten off somewhere and can't be located?

(By "authors," I assume that you meant "the Trinity.")

Jeffery Hodges

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