Having found long-missing original parts for Gounod’s La reine de Saba, or The Queen of Sheba, Gil Rose is now preparing to lead Odyssey Opera in a concert version on Saturday, September 22nd, at Jordan Hall, in what may be both the American premiere of Gounod’s grand opera, as well as the first complete performance since its opening night in 1862. Ticket’s HERE.
In his day, Charles Gounod, whose 200th birthday occurred on June 17th, stood among the most highly regarded of French composers. He won the Prix de Rome at 21; while studying for the next three years in the Eternal City, he found himself bored by the current repertory of Italian opera (Donizetti, Bellini, Mercadante) feeling that they lacked the vigor of Rossini, but deeply moved by the music of Palestrina in the Sistine Chapel. His profound absorption of Renaissance polyphony was not common among French composers of his day. It lent backbone to the Mass settings and other sacred works of later years. At the end of his stay in Rome, he went to Vienna, where he was quite overwhelmed by Mozart and Beethoven. On his journey home, he stopped in Leipzig, where Mendelssohn gave him a private performance of his Scottish Symphony in the Gewandhaus. All of these experiences would strike fire at various points in the future.
In the first years back in Paris he was mostly involved in church music and considered for a time interesting the priesthood. An acquaintance with the great singer Pauline Viardot turned his focus to the theater, especially when she arranged for him to get a libretto and a promised production at the Opéra. This first opera, Sapho, was intended as a showpiece for Viardot (with whom Gounod may have had a liaison, in rivalry with the Russian author Turgenev, at this time). It was produced, though to little success in April 1851. But it was the first of eventually 12 operas completed and produced, plus four others left unfinished.
Today, with perhaps two exceptions, Gounod is rarely thought of a primarily an opera composer. The most important of these exceptions, certainly, is his fourth opera, Faust, produced at the Théâtre Lyrique in March 1859. It became one of the most popular operas in the world. After the opening of the Metropolitan Opera in 1881, Faust was the choice for opening night more often during the company’s first century than another other work in the repertory. Indeed, for a time the Met was cheerily referred to as the Faustspielhaus (a play on the term Festspielhaus that Wagner gave to his theater in Bayreuth).
Only in Germany was Faust performed less frequently owing to the fact that the libretto only recounted the incidents in Goethe’s Part One, in which Faust seduces the innocent Gretchen. In order to preserve Goethe’s cultural honor while offering Gounod’s opera, the Germans changed the title to the name of the girl, Marguerite (the French equivalent of Gretchen), a practice they continue to this day.
Throughout his career, Gounod worked in the full range of lyric theater, from opéra comique (generally light-hearted plots with spoken dialogue, and never performed at the Opéra) to his most important essay at grand opera, La reine de Saba, or The Queen of Sheba (produced February 28, 1862).
In the United States, the phrase “grand opera” has frequently been used to refer to essentially any work sung from beginning to end and offered in a foreign language. In 19th-century France, it had very specific connotations: a large opera, on a historical subject, almost always in five acts, with a large number of principals, a large chorus, and eye-popping spectacle with expensive sets and costumes. In addition there had to be a substantial ballet during the course of the work, presented no earlier than the second act, to satisfy the influential members of the Jockey Club, who never bothered coming for the beginning of the performance and who wanted to ogle their mistresses in the ballet company. Such operas were enormously expensive to produce, to such a degree that the Paris Opéra rarely mounted more than two or three, if that, in an entire season. If the work was successful, as in the case of Giacomo Meyerbeer, who seems to have understood the formula for popular success, they could make a fortune for the composer, both in Paris and with productions in other large theaters.
But it was not at all unknown, whether for reasons of expense or of time, to remove parts of the opera when the original composer was not involved in the production. Or sometimes even if he was. Verdi’s Don Carlos lost a good 20 minutes of prime music after the dress rehearsal because the opera was proved to be running so late that much of the audience would miss the last trains to the suburbs. (The cut music was completely unknown until it was rediscovered in the 1970s in pages sewn together, so they would not be played.) Even popular operas, like Rossini’s Guillaume Tell suffered extraordinary hatchet jobs. In Rossini’s case, the cuts eventually led to the elimination of everything but Act II, which was played on a program of miscellaneous works by varied composer. Late in Rossini’s life, an acquaintance commented to him, “I saw Act II of Tell last night.” The composer replied acidly, “What? All of it?”
This practice of heavy cutting played a part with Gounod’s Queen of Sheba, as will appear shortly.
The opera’s title character is, of course, a figure who appears in the Bible, appearing twice in almost identical versions in I Kings 10 and II Chronicles 9. But these accounts hardly suffice to provide the plot of even a very short opera! The Queen has heard reports of Solomon’s wisdom and wealth; she comes to test him and see for herself. Having done so, she praises him greatly, they exchange valuable gifts, and she returns to her homeland. For an opera libretto, Gounod turned to two experienced and well-regarded practitioners, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who drew the plot from a collection of short stories entitled Le voyage en Orient by Gérard de Nerval.
Solomon has in his service an architect named Adoniram, who has designed a mammoth vessel to be cast in bronze. (This may have been inspired by the scene in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini of the casting of his great statue Perseus.) There are three unhappy workmen who sabotage the work, a highlight of the second act. When Balkis, the Queen of Sheba arrives, she is drawn to the architect and he to her because they share a common divine forebear, Tubalkaïn (according to the Bible, the original worker in metal). When Balkis and Adoniram decide to elope, she drugs Solomon and runs off to meet Adoniram at a pre-determined location. But the three workmen murder him. That is only the beginning of the plot outline, which fails to indicate that spirits of the underground realm of Tubalkaïn play a part, along with many others.
When originally produced, the plot tended to confuse the audience, which did not at all understand the racial link between Balkis and Adoniram. After only 15 performances, the run ended to allow reworking. When revived at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, it ran through the 1860s and 1870s. At some point large and important sections were cut from the opera, including a splendid, elaborate septet in Act III and a superb duet between Balkis and Solomon in Act IV. Were they eliminated for reasons of length? Perhaps they were too difficult for the performers? In any case, they have not been performed (if at all) since very early in the history of the opera.
Once again, opera-lovers in the Boston area are in debt to conductor Gil Rose and the Odyssey Opera for enriching recoveries and discoveries.
Kara Shay Thomson, Queen of Sheba
Dominick Chenes, Adoniram
Kevin Thompson, King Solomon
Michelle Trainor, Bénoni
Matthew DiBattista, Amrou
David Kravitz, Phanor
David Salsbery Fry, Méthousaël/ Sadoc
Gil Rose, Conductor