Record Guide: Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila

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Historical choice

An almost historical recording on Naxos, surviving in great sound with proper old school singing. Not the most famous cast, but the slightly lighter voices than would be heard in these roles today bring a fresh approach to this opera. Great, massive choruses and excellent diction put this lyrical version of Samson et Dalila on this list. Don’t miss it!

Domingo x 2

With Domingo still in his thirties and Barenboim’s clear, slow and very dynamic conducting, Barenboim’s recording on Deutsche Grammophon really lets the singers shine. The sound quality is great, but the star of the show is undoubtedly Elena Obraztsova; sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful. A very convincing performance with a great feel for the French language in all registers.

In Chung’s recording on Erato Domingo is older and better. Meier is both Carmen and Isolde in her vocal presence, mixing high and legato singing with furious and loud (!) midrange – and sensuality. The sound of the orchestra, especially the strings, is worth listening to in itself. This is a very symphonic opera and Myung-Whun Chung really makes the orchestra shine. Saint-Saëns was a true believer in musical beauty and this recording shows it perfectly.

Del Monaco & Stevens in great form

The greatest Italian heroic tenor of all time proves very competent in the French repertoire. Fausto Cleva’s mono live recording from the old Met has great soloists, great chorus, fast tempi and lots of erotic and sensual power. A little rushed at times, but both del Monaco and Stevens are very convincing.

 

First recommendation

Georges Prêtre recording on Erato is the definitive recording of the opera. Everything is where it’s supposed to be; the heroic Samson is portrayed by the great Jon Vickers with ardent intelligence (and great French, as you’d expect from a Canadian) and Rita Gorr does the role of her life. Prêtre is one of the great French opera conductors and this recording proves why – the dynamic control and swell of the orchestra is exactly what you want from the work. There’s not much more to say – this recording should be your introduction to this great piece of music.

Bonus tip

Although only the second act of the performance at the Royal Opera in Stockholm (1956) has survived, it is a great testament to the indulgence of two Wagner singers in the French Romantic style. Thebom – who is of Swedish descent – has wonderful diction and a warm mezzo timbre, and has been a friend of the great Set Svanholm’s Samson since they both sang the Ring in New York. Svanholm is just past his vocal prime, but his powerful, heroic voice suits the role and you can hear him singing at perhaps half his potential with this heroic yet gentle role.

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