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Samson et Dalila Met 1941 | IPCD 1084-2
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Reviews for IPCD 1084-2


SAINT-SAËNS Samson et Dalila • Wilfred Pelletier, cond; René Maison (Samson); Risë Stevens (Dalila); Leonard Warren (High Priest); Nicola Moscona (Old Hebrew); Norman Cordon (Abimélech); Ch & O of the Metropolitan Op House, New York • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1084 mono (2 CDs: 145:20) Live: Metropolitan Opera House, New York 12/13/1941

& Samson et Dalila: Act II, scene 3 (complete). Mill Scene. Piero Coppola, cond; Marie Duchêne (Dalila); César Vezzani (Samson); unidentified Ch and O.

Ken Meltzer
FANFARE magazine
September / October 2017

A new release on the Immortal Performances is billed as a “World Premiere” issue of a December 13, 1941 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Samson et Dalila. According to producer Richard Caniell, NBC’s transcription of the broadcast has long been assumed lost or destroyed. However, Wilfred Pelletier, the conductor of the broadcast, often arranged for private transcriptions of his performances. I assume it is the Pelletier transcription that serves as the source for the new Immortal Performances issue. We are indeed fortunate that Pelletier had the foresight to preserve this Samson broadcast, for it documents an outstanding performance by a first-rate cast. The Belgian tenor René Maison sang at the Met from 1936 to 1943, specializing for the most part in German and French repertoire. Maison, a singer with a commanding stage presence, heroic voice, and idiomatic grasp of the French language and repertoire, was well equipped to undertake the role of Samson, the tragic Biblical hero. Apart from a rather opaque B♭ at the conclusion of “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” Maison is in fine voice throughout the broadcast. In his entrance scene, Maison often seems tempted to rush ahead of Pelletier’s beat. But from then on, the tenor and conductor achieve a meeting of the minds. In the pivotal act II confrontation with Dalila (Delilah), Maison proves himself an intense and committed actor, as well as a sensitive musician, willing to explore a wide range of dynamics and vocal colors. Here, and in the act III Mill Scene, Maison creates an intensely moving portrait of a man tortured by his love for Dalila, with the inevitable resulting fall from grace. Even after a full afternoon of heroic singing, Maison is able to summon his resources for Samson’s clarion plea to God at the opera’s conclusion. This is an important document of one of the Met’s valuable singers during the 1930s and 40s.

Risë Stevens had a long and illustrious career at the Met (1938–1961). Carmen was of course the American mezzo’s most famous and often-performed Met role. But Dalila was central to her repertoire as well. Risë Stevens first sang the role on December 6, 1940, with her final Met Dalila taking place on tour in Toronto on May 29, 1958. The role of Dalila, scored for mezzo-soprano, is often sung by artists with a rather matronly voice and stage presence. But on this occasion, Risë Stevens is in her youthful vocal prime. The timbre is most definitely that of a mezzo, and there is more than sufficient power when required. But Stevens’s voice brims with freshness and life, and the various registers are seamlessly blended. Stevens’s alluring vocal quality, at the service of her marvelously inflected and paced depiction of Dalila’s malevolent seduction of Samson, creates a totally convincing character. No suspension of disbelief required here! Like Risë Stevens, the great American baritone Leonard Warren made his Met debut in 1938. In the 1941 broadcast, Warren is in sterling voice, and sails with ease through the role of the High Priest. Warren’s glorious vocalism brings thrills enough, but he also throws himself into the role, relishing the Priest’s evil, vengeful, and decadent side. Norman Cordon and Nicola Moscona sing beautifully in the smaller roles of Abimélech, Satrap of Gaza, and the Old Hebrew. The French-Canadian conductor Wilfred Pelletier, long a mainstay at the Met in French repertoire, is superb throughout. Pelletier revels in the colors of Saint-Saëns’s eclectic and atmospheric score. He also manages, without ever rushing, to create and maintain an unwavering forward momentum. Pelletier’s sculpting of the act II scene for Dalila and Samson is particularly masterful, as he unerringly builds the tension of the impending storm—both the meteorological one, and that enveloping the two lovers. Pelletier, the soloists, and the Met Chorus and Orchestra have a grand time in the delightfully overblown concluding Temple Scene, eliciting ecstatic cheers from the audience. The recorded sound is typical of broadcasts of the period, which is to say not the equal of contemporary studio recordings, but far more than adequate to enjoy the proceedings. In short, this 1941 Met Samson et Dalila is in many ways a gem, and well worth hearing.

If the broadcast is a gem, then the supplementary material represents true gold. In September of 1931, the Corsican tenor César Vezzani and French contralto Marie Duchêne recorded extended excerpts from Samson et Dalila for French HMV, including the act II confrontation and act III Mill Scene. Conductor Piero Coppola led the unnamed orchestra and chorus. The recorded sound is remarkable, with an extraordinary immediacy, detail, and color. And the performances are for the ages. Both Vezzani and Duchêne, in spectacular voice, were steeped in the glorious tradition of French Romantic operatic performance. The artists’ crystal-clear, idiomatic diction, seamless legato, dignified yet impassioned declamation, unerring sense of phrasing, and wealth of vocal colors are to be savored time and time again. Piero Coppola, a superb interpreter of French repertoire, is masterful as well in capturing the ebb and flow of Saint-Saëns’s score. The act II duet has previously been released on the Marston label, part of Volume II of its The Complete César Vezzani. In 2004, Guild issued both the act II and act III excerpts as an appendix to a 1936 Met broadcast of Samson, again featuring Maison in the title role. But the reproduction of the 1931 excerpts on the new Immortal Performances release is eons better, with far greater presence and dynamic range.

The CD booklet includes Henry Fogel’s eloquent, insightful, and enthusiastic appreciation of Samson et Dalila and the various included performances, London Green’s commentary on the Vezzani-Duchêne excerpts and plot summary, artist bios and photos, and Richard Caniell’s Recording Notes. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this release is worth its price for the amazing Vezzani-Duchêne recordings alone. But when you get a thrilling complete broadcast of the opera in the bargain, the set demands a most enthusiastic recommendation.


SAINT-SAËNS Samson et Dalila • Wilfred Pelletier, cond; René Maison (Samson); Risë Stevens (Dalila); Leonard Warren (High Priest); Nicola Moscona (Old Hebrew); Norman Cordon (Abimélech); Ch & O of the Metropolitan Op House, New York • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1084 mono (2 CDs: 145:20) Live: Metropolitan Opera House, New York 12/13/1941

& Samson et Dalila: Act II, scene 3 (complete). Mill Scene. Piero Coppola, cond; Marie Duchêne (Dalila); César Vezzani (Samson); unidentified Ch and O.

Colin Clarke
FANFARE magazine
September / October 2017

It is a reflection on opera houses of today perhaps that we are snowed under by Toscas and Traviatas but the riches of the operatic output of Camille Saint-Saëns are largely denied to us. For instance, no recording of Henry VIII is currently listed (search with all your heart, though, for the Le Chant du Monde recording issued in the early 1990s and conducted by Alain Guingal, an admittedly slightly scrappy rendition of a masterwork). Supplementing Samson currently in the catalog are the “poème lyrique” Hélène, the operetta La princesse jaune, and the composer’s second opera, Les Barbares—actually a shameful state of affairs when one considers the standard of the music.

Rant over, it is perhaps time to put the spotlight on his most famous opera, Samson et Dalila of 1877. This, at least, has multiple recordings. The work is as variegated as they come, taking in grand spectacle and the most tender, heart-wrenching intimacy. Like many, I came to this work via the Barenboim DG recording with Domingo, Obraztsova, and Bruson; the Prêtre Paris Opéra version with Jon Vickers and Rita Gorr is another impressive performance. And José Luccioni, who appears in the Immortal Performances Crespin set reviewed elsewhere in this issue of Fanfare, appeared in the role of Samson in the 1946 set conducted by Fourestier, joined by Hélène Bouvier as Dalila.

So, on to the current Met performance from 1941, lovingly restored here. The intensity of the act I Introduction also presents, in its brief space, the discipline of the strings. Throughout the performance that discipline is in place, enabling the “Danse des prêtresses de Dagon” to emerge with not only a light touch but with perfect unanimity; the act III Interlude is similarly exemplary, while that final act’s mock-orientalist Bacchanale has plenty of life. The act I Introduction leads directly into the lachrymose choral “Dieu! Dieu!” and as such seems to speak strongly of oratorio, not opera, particularly when divested of a stage setting in an audio-only experience. The Samson of René Maison is remarkably strong from the start, when he reminds the Hebrews of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. Yet he can sing with tendresse, too, as his late act I interactions with the fabulous Risë Stevens proves (immediately after the magical chorus “Voici le printemps”). It is in the first scene of the third and final act that Samson really comes into his own, and Maison, along with the stunning dramatic coup of an offstage chorus of enslaved Hebrews, captures the oppressive mood, his finely honed voice expressive and entirely involving. His final, parting gesture in the opera (“L’âme triste jusqu’à la mort”) finds him at his most emotionally powerful.

Stevens’s burnished tone for “Printemps qui commence” lends her role assumption supreme humanity; she is entirely believable, while Pelletier’s accompaniment is of the highest sensitivity, enabling the swells and ebbs of the phrases to reflect the act of breathing itself. Stevens’s anger in her invocation of the God of Love (ironically with the intent for an act of violence, to crush Samson), supported by Pelletier’s way with the score that always allows it to flow, supports an intensity which in this scene seems unrelenting. Not just her “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” but also the lead-in to that famous aria, speak of heart-stoppingly concentrated emotion. The aria itself finds Stevens’s low register taking on a deliciously smoky quality; there’s no trace of inappropriate strain here. In the ensuing, highly charged scene between Stevens and Maison (both singers in full voice), it is the orchestral storm Pelletier conjures up in the orchestra that ensures the drama ascends its true heights. Amazingly, the recording supports the final moments of the central act, where the orchestra is heard in full cry.

There’s no missing the strength of Norman Cordon’s Abimélech, the provincial governor, in his contributions early on in the opera (there are none later on, as Samson kills him when Abimélech taunts the God of the Hebrews in comparison with his God, Dagon). A young Leonard Warren is a dramatically convincing and strong High Priest. This was Warren’s first major role at the Met, and so to have it caught here is precious indeed. His duet with Stevens in the final stretches of the opera (“Viens, Dalila, render Grâce à nos Dieux”) provides one of the set’s many highlights. The vital chorus is in fine voice throughout. In the first act, prior to the killing of Abimélech, the members laudably sound inflamed rather than jolly (given Saint-Saëns’s setting, it would be remarkably easy to appear as the latter); listen also to the lightness of the final act chorus, “L’aube qui blanchit.”

The filler is the meeting Marie Duchêne and the Corsican tenor César Vezzani, recorded in 1931. Vezzani has a full voice, which blossoms out when passions rise, his top register aglow; Duchêne has all the delicacy to melt the stoniest of hearts. These are studio recordings, a fact more detectable from the orchestral contributions than from the singers themselves. Duchéne’s “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” is given lots of space. She maintains her tone in the high, climactic phrases well and as act II scene 3 continues, between them they generate a fair head of passion. The Mill Scene (“Vois ma misere,” so called because Samson turns a mill wheel while he repents of his infatuation and where it has led him and prays for his people) is poignant in the extreme. The orchestral winds are recessed, but the choral contributions are finely met. It is Vezzani’s full tone, meeting his misery full on, that enables this to be so moving. Surface noise is kept to a minimum in the transfer and the voices come across with presence.

In short, this is a vital reminder both of the importance of this opera, and of the other Saint-Säens’s operas that exist, as well as a wonderful performance in its own right.

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