Saint-Saëns's Samson and Dalia?
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.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:
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.
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.Generous applause for a "dully sung" opera, but even for the 'Western Europeans', the didacticism was sometimes too much. Hence the boos.
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.
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?