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Love and Ruin: Saint-Saens' 'Samson and Dalila'

Camille Saint-Saens had one of the most extraordinary careers in the history of music, and witnessed some truly amazing advances, both musical and technological.

When he was born, in 1835, the horse and buggy were the preferred means of transport, and the modern piano was still considered a new instrument. By the time he died, in 1921, Saint-Saens had seen the invention of the automobile, the airplane and the phonograph — and he even left us a few recordings.

Saint-Saens also lived to hear the first strains of 20th-century music — but he didn't like it much. In 1913, he walked out of the world-premiere performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Saint-Saens was a romantic at heart, and you can hear it in his work.

Music was something that came easily to Saint-Saens. "I write music," the composer said, "like an apple tree produces apples." An example is his brilliant second piano concerto, composed in a matter of a few days. But things didn't come so easily for Saint-Saens with Samson and Dalila.

When he first decided to set the story to music, he was thinking of a dramatic oratorio. He admired the oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn, and he was excited about the vibrant new choral movement in France. But his librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire, had different ideas, and urged him to write a full-fledged opera.

At the time, French society was leery about portraying religious stories on stage. A biblical setting seemed more appropriate in the church than in the opera house. Saint-Saens and Lemaire persisted, and the work was finished in 1876.

But their new opera was all dressed up, with no place to go. It waited nine years before Franz Liszt finally staged the premiere in Weimar, and it was another 13 years before the complete opera was seen on a French stage.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents the drama in a production by the Washington National Opera, performing at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C. The stars are mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Dalila and tenor Carl Tanner as Samson.

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