Initially, Saint-Saens intended to use the Biblical story of Samson's betrayal and death as the subject for an oratorio in the manner of Mendelssohn's Elijah, but his librettist, Lemaire, seized on the story's dramatic potential and suggested an opera. The resulting opus took Saint-Saens virtually a decade to bring to fruition. Liszt had initially intended staging the premiere in Weimar but, owing to the Franco-Prussian War, that promise could not be kept until 1877.
Yet the delay perhaps also guaranteed that Saint-Saens took more care in honing and perfecting his material than was his custom. The orchestration is consummate throughout, evoking a heady Mediterranean atmosphere. All the epic scale of French grand opera is there, replete with large-scale spectacle and extended ballet sequences. Throughout, the tale is underscored by the clash between the the puritanical Hebrews and the hedonistic Philistines, with Saint-Saens parodying the classical musical prototypes of Bach and Handel to evoke those warring factions.
With a finale which, literally, brings the house down, Samson soon became one of the most popular of French operas.
Scottish Opera mount the work in a brand-new production both directed and designed by Antony MacDonald, recently responsible for the Welsh National Opera's staging of Verdi's Nabucco, which sharply divided the critics. Two rising young American stars - Mark Lundberg and Carolyn Sebron - take the title roles, and a French conductor, Frederic Chaslin, appropriately, wields the baton.
EYE ON THE NEW
Much in demand as a major exponent of contemporary piano repertoire is the brilliant and very busy young virtuoso Ian Pace. Tonight, Pace joins the Apartment House ensemble in a concert including Xenakis, Feldman, Webern and Skempton (Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, 01223 352124, 8pm) and on Friday he continues his survey of Howard Skempton's complete piano works (Skempton turns 50 this year), plus pieces by Parsons and Cage (Conway Hall, London, 0171-242 8032, 25 Apr, 7.30pm)