Camille Saint-Saëns' opera, "Samson and Delilah," is based on the biblical story of Samson, the mighty Hebrew warrior whose strength came from his long hair. Whereas the story from the Book of Judges focused on Samson's strength and feats of martial prowess, the opera focuses on the character of the girl who brought him down: Delilah.
Introducing the Protagonist
The operatic version of the biblical tale begins with the Hebrew people in a state of subservience to the Philistines. They bemoan that the Philistines have sacked their cities and destroyed their temples, wondering if the Lord has forsaken them. At this point Samson enters, assures the Hebrew people that the Lord has not forsaken them, and extols the Hebrew people to rise up against the Philistines. At this mention of rebellion, the Philistine governor, Abimelech, comes out and tells the people that the prayers to their god are indeed in vain. Samson and Abimelech's argument escalates so that Abimelech attacks the unarmed Samson with a sword. Samson shows his strength by disarming the Philistine governor and slaying him with his own sword.
Seeing that Samson is a threat, both as a strong warrior and as a man who could unite the Hebrews in armed rebellion against them, the Philistine priests decide that Samson needs to go, but cannot be brought down by might alone. For this, they will use the exceedingly seductive Philistine maiden by the name of Delilah. From the moment she exits the temple and begins her seduction of Samson, an old man issues Samson a warning about Delilah's danger.
The audience learns more about Delilah's motivations as she waits outside her dwelling, having faith that her wiles would ensure that Samson would accept her earlier invitation to come to her home. The Philistine High Priest, desperate to break the rebellion by taking Samson prisoner, offers Delilah material wealth if she can capture Samson. She replies that she will facilitate his capture, but only out of loyalty as a Philistine to her people and her gods. Later, when Samson does show up, she overcomes his considerable resistance to reveal the secret of his strength. After he breaks down and reveals that it comes from his long hair, Delilah robs him of his strength and calls in the Philistine soldiers to capture him.
After the Philistines take Samson, they blind him to ensure he could never pose a military threat to the Philistine people again. As in the biblical story, the Philistines chain Samson to a milling wheel as their armies defeat the Hebrews. As a final act of spite, the Philistines bring Samson up to kneel before their god at a celebration for their military victory. As a final act of defiance, the blinded Samson has his guide take him to the two main pillars supporting the entire Philistine temple. The Lord answers Samson's prayer to restore his strength, and the fallen Hebrew uses it to pull down the pillars. With that, the temple crumbles, killing Samson as well as all the Philistines who were inside.
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