Raff struggled for several years to complete this biblical opera - the second of his six works in the genre. He wrote the libretto himself in Weimar during 1851-2 and began writing the music the next year. The opera wasn't finally finished until 1857, by which time Raff had moved to Wiesbaden. In 1858 his mentor Liszt, who regarded it as a work of genius, arranged for performances in Weimar. Unfortunately for Raff there were several problems which prevented it being staged, the most crucial being the lack of a suitable tenor to sing Samson. Eventually, the great Wagner heldentenor Ludwig Schnoor von Carolsfeld was secured for the title role and Raff began reorchestrating the work.
Unfortunately, precious time was lost by Raff in not giving Schnoor the completed score as it existed. Instead he fiddled around with a new "leaner" version of which he only completed the first act as a draft score. Why he wanted that leaner version is unknown but one might speculate that the original was by then too wagnerian for Raff's taste. He having wasted so much time, the promised premiere in Dresden was then cancelled after Schnoor's sudden death in 1865.
Samson WoO.20, which Raff himself called a Music Drama, is written on a grand scale - all the more impressive when one considers that as well as writing both libretto and music, Raff also penned a book setting out the literary and musical history of the Samson story - all of which was intended as a doctoral dissertation.
Volker Tosta has studied the score and has prepared a synopsis of the libretto, which makes an interesting comparison with that for Saint-Saëns' opera Samson et Delilah of 1877.
Temple of the goddess Astarte in Gaza. The Israelites under Samson's leadership revolt against their oppressors, the Philistines. They are outside the city gates. Inside the temple the chiefs of the Philistines have followed the lead of their king Abimelech, preparing to bring sacrifices to the goddess Astarte before the start of the battle. Abimelech announces that in the event of his death his daughter Delilah will become queen of the Philistines and Micha an Israelite deserter will become her husband.Delilah has turned down the advances of Micha, she refuses to parcipitate in the praying for the destruction of the Israelites. She has fallen in love with Samson, the Israelite, and knows her feelings are being returned. She offers her own life to the goddess Baaltis in order to spare Samson's.
The Philistines are defeated. Under Samson's leadership the Israelites pursue the fleeing warriors to the temple of Astarte. Through Delilah's intervention, Samson spares Abimelech's life. Delilah pleads for mercy for her people. Samson agrees under one condition: that the Israelites can serve their own God without reppression. Abimelech, the high priest and the chiefs abandon their power over the Israelites. Samson & Delilah are carried off triumphantly through the crowds.
The Israelites, apart from a few loyal friends of Samson's, have dispersed. Samson remains in Abimelech's palace to be near Delilah. Abimelech has no intention of fulfilling the agreed peace treaty; he deeply mistrusts Samson. He considers having Samson murdered so as to save his daughter and his people from greater disaster. Abimelech is aware of the pain he will cause Delilah, but calms these thoughts. Given time she will understand the reason for his action. Speed is of the essence, as Samson plans to leave Gaza. To be able to fulfil his plan to overpower Samson, Abimelech needs Delilah's help. He asks her to distract and disarm Samson whilst saying good-bye to him. Cleverly he knows that he must allay Delilah's fears about Samson's safe departure and offers to have him taken as hostage. Guided by the prospect of staying close to him and knowing how much she loves and trusts her father, Delilah agrees to the plan. Realizing Samson's death would destroy Delilah, Abimelech decides just to imprison Samson for the time being.
The plan is presented to the Seranns and high priests. Micha reproaches Abimelech that he only wants to imprison Samson out of consideration for his daughter. To spare Samson is treason, death is the only way. The Seranns agree. Micha is deeply wounded that Abimelech broke his promise to give him Delilah's hand in marriage. In open rebellion he and his men draw swords against the king. To finish this revolt the high priest announces it to be the wish of the gods to blind Samson and throw him in the dungeons. The assembly and Abimelech bow to this. Abimelech sees his plans foiled and hands over the power of government to the high priests. Micha is given the task of blinding and imprisoning Samson. Everyone leaves. Abimelech stays behind filled with despair.
Samson has readily taken to the ways of the Philistines and turned away from his own people. To regain honour, power and wealth he decides to leave for Asia in the hope of winning over Delilah. The last of his faithful men leave him.
While saying good-bye to Delilah she tempts him to stay, recalling the early days of their love. Too late he remembers his plans; unnoticed, Micha and his men have crept close and take the defenseless Samson. Delilah believes now that her lover will be close to her forever. When the high priest announces Samson's fate, she realizes she has been used. In her despair she condemns her father.
Samson lies blinded and bound in prison. A special feast is being prepared for the god Dagon. Samson is going to appear. He intends, on this day, to make the front of the temple collapse and through this action kill many people and dignitaries. He will thus take revenge on his enemies - his life will have made sense after all. He asks for a helper to assist him to walk to the temple. Delilah appears, disguised, and reveals herself to Samson. She tells him about her attempt to find allies amongst the Israelites to free him, but they appear uninterested in an uprising. Through his last act Samson hopes to drag his people out of their lethargy so that they finally rise up to fight for their freedom. He informs Delilah of his plan. Horrified, she eventually decides not to betray Samson again and to die with him.
Townsfolk and dignitaries, amongst them Abimelech and Micha, have gathered outside the Dagon temple. Dances are performed to honour the gods. For the entertainment of the crowd Samson is ordered by the high priest to sing to a harp. Disguised as a boy, Delilah leads Samson to the front of the temple. Abimelech and Micha, who see him, are painfully reminded of their guilt towards Delilah. She, remaining the dutiful daughter, sends a woman to warn her father about Samson's intention. Samson persuades Delilah to lead him amongst the columns. Delilah notices that her father is ignoring the warning, in deep despair she throws herself into her father's arms who embraces her happily. Whilst the people are watching the reunion of father and daughter, unnoticed by them Samson pushes the two columns apart and the roof of the temple collapses burying everyone underneath.
[Originally published in German in the Newsletter of the Joachim Raff Society]