Cecil B. DeMille once said: “Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.”
Rife with such juicy subjects as murder, lust, betrayal and moral redemption, biblical scriptures have indeed served as the basis of countless movies, paintings, and books. Surprisingly, only a handful of these stories have ever made it to the stage as operas.
Pittsburghers can enjoy one of these rare operatic performances this week as “Samson and Dalila,” by Camille Saint-Saens, runs through Oct. 26 at the Pittsburgh Opera.
“The Christian world did not want religious or biblical operas to be put on stage,” explained Beth Parker, the director of public relations and community outreach of the Pittsburgh Opera, also known as The Opera Lady. “It was considered sacrilegious to have actors portraying biblical characters.”
“This is why there aren’t very many biblical operas,” said Parker, noting that Samson and Dalila is “the only one in the standard repertoire. There are others, but they are more obscure.”
Although Samson and Dalila first premiered in Germany in 1877, it was long banned in England by Queen Victoria as sacrilege, and its premiere in France was delayed until 1890 for the same reason.
Other operas based on biblical stories include: “Salome,” composed by Richard Strauss and based on the play by Oscar Wilde; “The Queen of Sheba,” by Karl Goldmark; Susannah, by American composer Carlisle Floyd, based on the New Testament story of Susannah and the Elders; and “Moses and Aron” by Schoenberg.
“Moses and Aron,” which examines the human understanding of God’s message, is rarely performed.
“It is a difficult modern opera, costing lots of money to produce,” said Parker. “It’s not really done frequently. The whole opera is bizarre. The scene with the golden calf is a real orgy, as it was in the Bible.”
Although biblical operas are rare, and are even more rarely produced, other great works of music that have biblical roots are more accessible.
“There are lots of oratorios based on Hebrew scriptures,” said Parker. “More are based on Hebrew scriptures than on the New Testament.” These oratorios are Bible stories told through songs, but with no acting, costumes or sets. Handel, for example, though most famous for his oratorio “The Messiah,” also wrote about Esther, Saul, Judah Maccabeus and Samson.
Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Dalila,” which opened at the Benedum Center on Oct. 18, stays mostly true to the familiar story, although indulges the imagination of its composer as to the relationship between the two central characters.
“It’s pretty much a straight Bible story,” said Parker, “but with a modern twist.”
The opera begins when Samson steps out to fulfill his destiny as leader of the Hebrews, serving as slaves of the Philistines. Samson’s murder of King Abimelech touches off a Hebrew rebellion, which in turn causes the High Priest to enlist Dalila in a plot of bringing down Samson.
“In the Bible, it says that Dalila betrays Samson for money. But in the opera, when the High Priest comes to Dalila,” Parker says. “[Dalila] says ‘I don’t want your money. I’ve already been trying to bring Samson down.’ In the opera, her motivation is different, because Samson is keeping a corner of his spirit away from her, saving a part for God.”
The opera differs from the Bible story in that Dalila’s incentive is not money, but rather jealousy. “This is a love triangle involving God,” Parker said. “ In this case, God is the third part of the love triangle.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)