Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila (Highlights)
Risë Stevens, mezzo-soprano, (Dalila), Mario del Monaco, tenor, (Samson), Clifford Harvuot, baritone, (High Priest of Dagon), Ezio Flagello, bass, (Abimélech), Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, Fausto Cleva, Conductor.
RCA Red Seal Vintage Collection BVCC-37351 F (ADD) TT: 52:15

On March 13, 1958 Mario del Monaco sang his first Samson at the Metropolitan Opera. This debut took place while the tenor was in the midst of a series of Met Otellos. In fact, del Monaco sang Verdi’s Moor of Venice both five days before and four days after his Samson debut, an impressive feat of heroic tenor singing. His partner in the Samson et Dalila performances was Risë Stevens, the Met’s leading mezzo-soprano. Stevens’ first Met performance of the biblical seductress took place in December 1940. The month following del Monaco’s role debut RCA made a stereo recording of highlights from the opera. As far as I can tell, this recording has never been issued by RCA on CD either in the United States or Europe. Now it is available in a superb remastering from the Japanese RCA “Red Seal Vintage Collection.” The recording is valuable for several reasons. First, neither Stevens nor del Monaco ever made a complete commercial recording of Samson et Dalila (Some years earlier Stevens had recorded, in monophonic sound, a highlights disc of Samson for RCA with Jan Peerce, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski). Second, the recorded sound of this RCA stereo Samson is superb, perhaps the finest ever provided for these two superb vocalists. For once it is possible to hear not just the power in del Monaco’s voice, but the burnished, dark beauty as well.

Not only is del Monaco’s voice recorded particularly well, the tenor also offers one of his finest performances on commercial disc. It seems that the role of Samson encouraged him to engage in a bit more restraint than was his norm. Throughout he sings Samson with heroic, ringing tone, but also with superb legato and a nobility that the tenor sometimes ignored for more
crowd-pleasing effects. While no one would mistake del Monaco’s French for that of a Georges Thill or José Luccioni, it is clear, and delivered with great feeling. And, from time to time, del Monaco also makes effective use of softer dynamics, particularly in the great confrontation with Dalila in Act II. All in all, I count this among del Monaco’s finest commercial recordings.

In 1958 Risë Stevens was just a few months shy of her 45th birthday and concluding her 20th season at the Met. Unfortunately she is heard just past her best, with the tone not quite as focused and authoritative as in earlier recordings. But Stevens is still a superb singing actress, one who brings tremendous style, flair and sensuality to the role of Dalila. Two Met stalwarts, Ezio Flagello and Clifford Harvuot, are fine in their brief appearances. The contributions of conductor Fausto Cleva, the Metropolitan Chorus and Orchestra are excellent as well.

I obtained my copy of this disc from HMV in Japan ( I am not certain about the availability of this disc from European and American sources. However, if you are a fan of the two principal singers - del Monaco in particular - I think it’s worth your time and expense to search out this recording.

K.M. (May 2003)