Ralph P Locke. “Constructing the Oriental ‘Other’: Saint-Saëns’s ‘Samson et Dalila.’” Cambridge Opera Journal 3, no. 3 (1991): 261–302.
Orientalist operas at the turn of the century followed a typical plot: a young White tenor intrudes into a mysterious dark-skinned colonized territory represented by alluring women (alto/soprano) and incurring the wrath of brutal chiefs (baritones/bass). Locke argues that in Samson et Dalila, Saint-Saens “subverts the very binaries [mentioned above] that he and his librettist established in the opera’s plot.” In short, dancing philistines like Delile represented as a seductive threat to righteous, God-fearing Hebrews like Samson and Locke notes that late nineteenth century audiences would have already recognized this story and its explicitly constructed binaries. Additionally, Saint-Saêns reinforced this privileging of the West by scoring the Hebrews with allusions to rich references to techniques of European sacred music (Bach, Handel or Mendelssohn) such as in the opening act choral fugue.
But Locke argues that Saint-Saens writes in a way that the audience may be able to gradually come to identify with Delilah and the Philistines. He focuses on the Third Act’s Hymn to Dagon, a hymn with, albite archaically rigid, Baroque counterpoint in exact canon. Contemporary reviewers noted that the “composer has surprised himself in the brilliant and highly-colored music of the Philistine festival” and Locke concludes that such straightforward appreciation of the Hymn to Dagon “leads us to a final interpretive possibility, one that reads the number as both positive and negative” as perhaps Saint-Saens “intended the very grandeur and spirit of this music to form an ironic contrast to the cruelty of the Philistines’ behavior and barbarity of their religion.”
This “double message” about the Oriental world was common place, as painter Henri Regnault “aimed to place the high degree of their civilization” in stark contrast to their “Mohammedan nepotism.”
Locke also looks at Delilah and shows how she’s also an ambiguous figure with ambiguous motives: she’s patiriotic to the Philistines but also genuinely loves Samson. Most obviously, in Act II from Delilha’s “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” Locke does not interpret Delilah’s “Mais…non! Que dis-je? Helas!” As a feigned or counterfeited cry. Such a reading misses the essential ambiguity of Delilah, who seems at once heroically strong and deeply needful, a character who might be a worthy match and perhaps mate for Samson were she not twisted and de-humanised by her role as agent of the oppressor.