By Emma Kavanagh
Saint-Saëns’s 1877 opera, Samson et Dalila, is widely considered to be one of the jewels of the French operatic repertoire. Its Biblical story is well known: Samson, leader of the Israelites and blessed with superhuman strength by God, is led astray by Delilah – the stereotypical exotic and dangerous femme fatale. Upon Delilah’s discovery that Samson’s strength lies in his hair, he is shorn, captured and blinded. At the end of the opera, as he is goaded by his Philistine captors, Samson’s strength returns as a blessing from God and he destroys the Temple of Dagon along with everyone inside.
Delilah has long been compared unsympathetically with other Biblical fallen women; she is even further still from the Bible’s virginal ideal. Yet despite, or rather because of, this she is also a fascinating character; even Saint-Saëns could not resist her charms – the opera was originally entitled with her name alone, Dalila. This dangerous allure is rooted in the French fascination with the Orient at the time the opera was composed.
The growth of the Second French Empire, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, prompted an increase in French public interest in her colonies. These faraway lands provided an artistic opportunity to explore repressed feelings on socio-political topics which were otherwise avoided in polite society. Among these was the sexual liberation of women, a topic presented onstage through stereotypes such as the femme fatale. As an incarnation of social taboos, operatic femme fatales at this time were intended to be thrilling and shocking. To contemporary audiences, they conveyed an implicit message: that sexualised female behaviour may be exciting, but ultimately it was not only reprehensible, but downright dangerous. The Orient provided the geographical distance required to explore this idea, and the temporal distance of Saint-Saëns’s Biblical setting allowed for even further detachment.
Delilah, along with the likes of Carmen, is one of the most pertinent examples of the use of the exotic to explore empowered female sexuality through the femme fatale. The basis for this interpretation lies in Delilah’s voluptuous arias, the most famous of which, ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘My heart opens at your voice’) is at the crux of her portrayal. While many productions use this aria to reinforce unthinkingly the one-dimensional femme fatale stereotype, others explore a more conflicted, remorseful Delilah. This musical moment is key to re-reading her character for twenty-first century audiences, who might wish to avoid outdated and misogynistic interpretations of strong women. By examining this aria through a lens that highlights sexual agency and female empowerment, it is possible to see how Delilah uses sexuality as a functional tool to achieve her goal. Once we understand this moment through such a lens, we can move away from an unthinking and outdated interpretation of women’s autonomy.
When adapting the story of Samson and Delilah for the operatic medium, it was in depicting Delilah’s motivations that Saint-Saëns and his librettist, Henri Lemaire, took their greatest liberties with the Biblical source material. While in the Bible, Delilah is paid for her part in Samson’s capture, her motivation for accepting the Philistines’ payment is never made clear. In contrast, the operatic Delilah does not accept the High Priest’s offer, instead citing her religious beliefs as motivation enough for her actions. In her recitative of Act II, Scene 2, Delilah makes clear that she has long tried to discern the secret of Samson’s strength, admitting ‘three times I have tried to discover the spell’. She has foreseen the necessity of deposing Samson, and by refusing payment, shows that she needs neither encouragement nor financial incentive.
Delilah executes her plan perfectly, exploiting her prey’s infatuation. In Samson’s eyes, she appears to surrender to him completely, suggesting that she is there for the taking. But this is, of course, a trap. She is determined to avenge her people and destroy Samson. Once we recognise that Delilah is actively using her sexuality to achieve her goal, this scene becomes very interesting.
And yet, if we begin by examining the aria’s text, it might at first seem that Delilah is entirely at Samson’s disposal. Even the first line, ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘My heart opens at your voice’) implies that Delilah’s heart is the object as opposed to the subject. She implores him to respond ‘Ah! réponds à ma tendresse!’ (Ah! Respond to my tenderness!) and to fill her with joy and happiness ‘Verse-moi, verse-moi l’ivresse!’ (Fill me with ecstasy!). Samson, it would seem, is entirely in control and Delilah is powerless to resist.
But what we are witnessing here is not female submission, but merely the illusion of it. Delilah uses her sexuality as a functional tool and expertly manipulates Samson’s desire for her. Her carefully chosen words expressed through consciously exotic music lure him into a false sense of security. And it is through an analysis of her musical language, that we can begin to fully understand Delilah’s sexual power and autonomy.
Delilah expresses her compelling sexuality musically through various exotic tropes, such as chromaticism, freer rhythms and wordless vocalise. Saint-Saëns used these devices liberally here as this scene was written while he was still considering the work as an oratorio: without the benefit of a set or costumes, the music had to set the scene.
In the aria’s second verse, the orchestral accompaniment becomes more chromatic – a trope commonly deployed to depict the exotic in the nineteenth century. These additional accidentals distance Delilah and her musical language from what is recognisably ‘Western’. Sextuplets create freer rhythms here, suggesting an improvisatory quality, and again liberating the music from ‘Western’ strictures. The figure below demonstrates both of these tropes at play (from 3:03 in the above recording):
In addition, Delilah’s wordless vocalisation ‘aah’, another exotic musical device, is exploited by Saint-Saëns later in the aria. Vocalisations were crucial in portraying the East as emotional and passionate, and thus distinct from the rational and coherent West. In other words, it is a rather crude device to demonstrate that the exotic is unable to express itself in recognisably Western terms. Unlike the orchestral accompaniment of the previous example, her singing plays a more ‘diegetic’ role in Delilah’s seduction. That is to say, that what we hear is not just a composer’s imposition of music on the narrative presented onstage; Samson too, can hear her singing, thus suggesting that that her use of exotic musical techniques is entirely conscious. (Figure 2 starts at 2:22 in the recording).
Ultimately, this active choice to sexualise herself through the use of music – and her awareness of the impact of her actions – empowers Delilah. She takes control of her own sexuality: she is no longer just a female subject of male actions. However unsavoury, her actions achieve her own ends. While it might appear otherwise to Samson, Delilah’s sexualisation is a choice for her own personal gain – she is in control of her sexual agency and how she is perceived, both by those in her operatic context and by audiences.
Delilah is irresistible: first to Samson, and then subsequently to Saint-Saëns and audiences. Such an obvious display of female sexuality would have been shocking to nineteenth-century audiences; and indeed, it was intended to be so. But in the twenty-first century it is surely time to move beyond the one-dimensional femme fatale stereotype and address this scene in a different light. Instead of seeing Delilah as a shameful harlot, I would argue that Delilah can – and should – be viewed as an empowered woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants.
This re-reading by no means argues that Delilah should be likeable: far from it. Indeed her cunning and ruthless disdain for Samson should disturb us; but we should not be shocked by her sexual wiles. To continue reading Delilah as a femme fatale merely reinforces nineteenth-century patriarchal views of women and sex. Rather than passively receiving the outdated interpretation that Saint-Saëns’s opera encouraged, we should grudgingly admire (or at least acknowledge) a more empowered woman getting exactly what she wants, no matter the means.
Emma Kavanagh graduated with a BA in Music from Jesus College, Cambridge in 2016. She is hoping to pursue postgraduate study, with a focus on gender, race and identity in nineteenth-century opera. She tweets at @kavaemma.
Join the mailing list.