A Vital Celebration of Handel’s Irrepressible Solomon

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Solomon: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of Early Opera Company / Christian Curnyn (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 11.10.2018. (CC)

Solomon – Lawrence Zazzo

Solomon’s Queen/First Harlot – Sophie Bevan

Queen of Sheba/Second Harlot – Susan Bickley

Zadok – Ed Lyon

Levite – Richard Burkhard

Handel’s late oratorio in three parts, Solomon, was composed in May and June 1748. The first performance took place at Covent Garden Theatre, the site of the present Royal Opera, on March 17, 1749; and this performance makes the start of a series of Handel works that were premiered nearly three centuries ago. Solomon is one of 13 oratorios first performed there, starting with Samson in 1743 and concluding with The Triumph of Time and Truth (a reworking of Il Trionfo del tempo e della vertitá) in 1757.

It is a fabulous idea, and there was much to commend this first instalment. Having the orchestra in the pit was possibly a miscalculation as more detail would have been forthcoming if they had been on the stage. Soloists were placed towards the edge of the main stage as opposed to centrally, which won’t have pleased all sight lines – the final duet between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, ‘Ev’ry joy, that wisdom knows’ found the two on opposite sides of the stage yet, musically, beautifully together.

The piece is divided into three ‘acts’, or ‘parts,’ the first celebrating the completion of Solomon’s Temple and Solomon’s enchantment with his new wife; the second part celebrates Solomon’s wisdom, exemplified by his judgement between two Harlots over an infant (Solomon commands them to cut the infant into two to settle the matter – logic at work, certainly – in a ploy to reveal the real mother); the final part brings the Queen of Sheba, her famous Arrival. The performance, in Curnyn’s version, ends with the chorus ‘Praise the Lord with Harp and Tongue’.

The Overture was refreshingly done, fast and accurate in its more rapid-fire sections, dignified elsewhere. The contrapuntally complex main allegro was superbly delineated, the sound bright. Throughout, the orchestral contribution was tight and well managed; the sound would have been more focused if they had been on stage, though. Curnyn absolutely had the measure of the piece; the ‘libretto’, anonymously conflated from Biblical sources and hardly the world’s greatest artwork, in effect puts our attention fully on Handel’s genius. The orchestra created some magical sonorities (the gentle string throbbings underpinning ‘With gentle hearts’ a case in point). This, and the strength of the soloists, was what gave the most satisfaction.

The Chorus of the Royal Opera has its fair share of choruses, but was sadly not on its finest form on this particular occasion, the sopranos thin and even scrappy at times in the opening ‘Your hearts and cymbals sound’. They found their stride by the famous ‘Nightingale Chorus’ (‘May no rash intruder’, with its deliciously playful, avian scoring) in the second scene and maintained that standard through the rest of the evening.

The soloists were more consistent. The small role of the Levite actually opens the evening, so pressure was high on Richard Burkhard (who was also making his Royal Opera debut here). His ‘Praise ye the Lord’ was lyrical and tender, a wonderful song beautifully realised. As Zadok (yes, that one), British tenor Ed Lyons, whose wide repertoire for Covent Garden ranges from La Calisto to The Exterminating Angel, was an incredibly strong soloist, right from his first ‘Sacred Raptures’, his melismas perfectly executed. This is in fact an intriguing aria, curiously bare in its textures, and therefore cruelly exposing its soloist. Lyons’ confidence enabled us to celebrate Handel’s ‘sacred rapture’; his Part II contributions revealed how secure he is over his entire vocal range. Only in the final part did a slightly tremulous aspect invade his voice.

As Solomon’s Queen (and, later, Harlot 1), Sophie Bevan was beautiful of voice (‘Bless’d the day’) and also nimble in Handel’s florid writing; she excelled, too, in the aria ‘Can I see my infant gor’d’, in which we, the audience, really shared her pain. Solomon himself was sung by counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo, an occasional visitor to Covent Garden (Trinculo Tempest 2003/4, Endimione Calisto 2008/9). He had an appealing tone, the duet with his Queen, ‘Welcome as the dawn of day’ a triumph of vocal casting, his air ‘When the sun o’er yonder hills’ gloriously legato. The Part II Trio, ‘Words are weak to paint my fears’, was one highlight of the evening, the three strands of the two women (Bevan, Susan Bickley) and Solomon infinitely touching, while the duet between Solomon and First Harlot ‘Thrice bless’d be the King’ was overflowing with grace and vocal beauty.

The role of the Queen of Sheba is kept for the work’s final part. After an ultra-rapid Arrival (with magnificent piping oboes), the experienced Susan Bickley’s ‘Ev’ry sight these eyes behold’ found her in positively gleaming voice. Her air ‘Will the sun forget to streak’ was one of the evening’s finest moments, the long oboe solo (Katharina Spreckelsen) a magnificent preparation for Bickley’s eloquence.

Despite caveats, this remained a vital celebration of Handel’s irrepressible invention; to hear it on the same ground as its premiere is a privilege indeed. The next instalment is keenly anticipated.

Colin Clarke

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