Two Takes on Camille Saint-Saens’s “Samson and Delilah”

Mae West: "I got a fully trained operatic voice"(Photo: Unknown journalist, Los Angeles Times Archive)
Mae West: "I got a fully trained operatic voice"(Photo: Unknown journalist, Los Angeles Times Archive)

It’s been the mezzo-soprano’s national anthem for 130 years, Delila’s seduction of Samson, complete with hair cut, in Act II of Camille Saint-Saens‘s Samson and Delilah, or to use the French title, Samson et Dalila. “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix!” proclaims Delila. My heart opens at your voice!

Ah! reponds a ma tendresse! Verse-moi, verse-moi l’ivresse! Answer my tenderness! Fill me with ecstasy!

Tenors have been shorn and have fallen for that line going back to Caruso and Louise Homer 100 years ago. Closer to our own time we’ve had the powerful and unforgettable pairings in song and more of Rise Stevens and Mario del Monaco, Marilyn Horne and Jon Vickers, Denyce Graves and Placido Domingo.

Delila’s Gallic sultriness has been sung by the greatest artists, among them Marian Anderson, Sigrid Onegin, Dame Clara Butt (I’m not making that up) and Maria Callas (recording only).

But there is one performance of this music different than all the rest. It was immortalized in a 1935 film called Goin’ To Town. Not only do we have a very special brand of music making, we also have the hysteria of backstage at the opera, on film.

Saint-Saens meets his match long after his death when his music is, er, interpreted by….. Mae West:

In her memoir Beverly the late Beverly Sills recalls meeting the very elderly Mae West in Hollywood. “I don’t think she knew who I was, but I certainly knew who she was.”

When Sills asked Miss West if she ever sang, the old girl almost lost her false…eyelashes. “I got a fully trained operatic voice!,” she crowed.

Indeed. Not for nothing was Mae West the highest paid woman in America in the mid-1930s, outranking FDR and the head of General Motors at the height of the depression.

Okay, okay. Here’s a bit of a more – what…?…authentic? – performance of Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix:

It’s a great tune that obviously leaves room for more than one interpretation. Maybe Shirley Verrett can appreciate Mae West, even if Mae West was truly unique.