Camille Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila
HÈlËne Bouvier, mezzo-soprano, (Dalila), JosÈ Luccioni, tenor, (Samson), Paul Cabanel, baritone, (High Priest of Dagon), Charles Cambon, bass, (AbimÈlech), Henri MÈdus (Old Hebrew), Chorus and Orchestra of the National Opera of Paris, Louis Fourestier, Conductor. Plus JosÈ Luccioni: arias by Gounod, Bizet and Massenet/ orchestra conducted by EugËne Bigot.

Naxos Historical 8.110063-64 (2 CDs (B) (ADD) TT: 2:21:49

The first commercial recording of  Saint-Saëns's biblical opera Samson et Dalila, made by EMI in 1946, remains in many ways the finest. Certainly  sonics of this recording, originally released on 78s, cannot compete with more modern issues. But there are numerous other qualities that place this recording at the top of the list.

First and foremost, the recording is by far the most idiomatic of all commercial issues. It is the only one that features an entire cast—principal singers, chorus, orchestra, and conductor—who are native to the French style. What a pleasure it is to hear the text proclaimed with such clarity and sensitivity and to hear the wide range of colors and unerring sense of line the vocalists are able to impart to their music. Finally  what a pleasure it is to listen to a conductor who collaborates in such a sympathetic way with his singers.

JosÈ Luccioni represents a type of voice that has essentially disappeared from our midst.This native of Corsica possessed a bright heroic tenor, very much in the mold of such great singers as LÈon Escala's (with whom Luccioni studied) and Georges Thill. It is a voice that lacks the baritonal quality of such famous Samsons as Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo. But these considerable artists do not begin to approach Luccioni's ease with the French language and style. Luccioni proves himself to be a dramatically persuasive Samson as well. His entrance ("ArrÍtez, ô mes frËres") is a model of heroic dignity, ideal for a messenger of God.  During the Act II confrontation with Dalila, Luccioni rises to greatness in his depiction of the conflict raging within Samson between his devotion to God and desire for carnal pleasure. The despair that Luccioni expresses during the Scene at the Mill is all the more touching because of the tenor's admirable restraint. And in the opera's final moments, Luccioni gloriously depicts the return of Samson's strength with a ringing B-flat. Despite impressive recorded competition, JosÈ Luccioni remains for me the best Samson on disc.

He is partnered by the equally impressive Dalila of the Parisian mezzo-soprano HÈlËne Bouvier. Unfortunately this longtime star of the Paris OpÈra and OpÈra-Comique participated in relatively few commercial recordings, making this Samson et Dalila all the more valuable. As with JosÈ Luccioni, HÈlËne Bouvier offers a memorable combination of vocal riches, a firm grasp of the French operatic style, and dramatic persuasiveness.

Paul Cabanel, Charles Cambon, and Henri MÈdus, all distinguished French artists, are excellent as respectively, the High Priest, AbimÈlech, and an Old Hebrew.  As previously mentioned, conductor Louis Fourestier demonstrates admirable sympathy with his singers and with Saint-Saëns's music. The dramatic conclusion of Act II and a scintillating "Bacchanal" reveal that Fourestier was also capable of generating considerable excitement. The timbre of the orchestra, with its rather nasal winds and brass, reinforces the Gallic atmosphere of the enterprise.

This is the second CD reissue of the 1946 Samson et Dalila. The first, made by French EMI in 1994, was certainly acceptable and most welcome. It appears that those responsible for the EMI remastering employed a fair amount of filtering to mask surface noise of 78 rpm masters. As a result  there is little surface noise, but there is also a corresponding loss in terms of vocal presence. The new Naxos Historical issue,  superbly remastered by Ward Marston, constitutes a marked improvement over the 1994 EMI effort. There is slightly more surface noise. But the voices emerge with impressive warmth, clarity, and immediacy. Additionally,  Marston has been able to noticeably reduce distortion in louder passages that apparently was inherent in the original masters.

As a welcome bonus the Naxos issue includes recordings by JosÈ Luccioni of arias from Polyeucte, RomÈo et Juliette, Carmen, HÈrodiade, and Manon. As in the case of Samson, the performances and remasterings are absolutely first-rate. One hopes that  Marston and Naxos will consider an entire CD issue devoted to this marvelous heroic tenor.

The EMI issue provides essays and plot synopses (in English and French), as well as a French-only libretto. The Naxos set includes an English-language essay on Samson, a plot synopsis, and brief bios of Bouvier, Luccioni, and Fourestier. There is no libretto. The lack of texts and translations constitutes the only shortcoming of this excellent Naxos reissue. Ward Marston's glorious remastering of the 1946 Samson et Dalila constitutes an ideal realization of this irreplaceable document of a bygone era. At budget price, it earns the highest recommendation.

K.M. (Sept. 2000)