Enterprising as always, Odyssey Opera gave the first American performance Gounod’s Queen of Sheba (La Reine de Saba) in a concert version at Jordan Hall on Saturday evening, over 150 years after the 1862 premiere in Paris. Gil Rose and his staff of researchers assembled lost materials (removed from many 19th-century performances of Gounod’s grand opera) to allow those present in Jordan Hall to be the first to enjoy the complete work in more than a century—especially so because the reinstated sections included some of the best music of the score. See our article HERE.
Gounod wrote a dozen operas, of which two are performed with reasonable frequency today: his setting of Goethe’s Faust (limited to the Gretchen episode) and his Romeo and Juliet. His Queen of Sheba is a grand opera, on the largest scale—five acts, running three and a half hours—making great demands on set designers, costumiers, wig makers, and so on—to say nothing of the singers. That, of course, made it a candidate for Odyssey’s tradition of opening its season in September with a concert performance of a large opera that will, in all likelihood, never be performed on stage here. Although one naturally misses the colorful elements of a full production and the physical gestures of the singers—especially when falling in love, or committing murder, two actions found in a great many operas!—a chance to hear a well-prepared performance of an unknown score more than compensates.
The libretto of La Reine de Saba came from two successful librettists of the day, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who found their plot not in Biblical histories, where one might expect to find the source of an opera about King Solomon and his encounter with the Queen of Sheba, but rather in a story found in the book Voyage en Orient, by Gérard de Nerval, in which the account of Balkis (the name given to the queen) takes on a magical character drawn from the Koran. Frankly, the result is a somewhat odd opera libretto to have appealed to the conventionally religious Gounod, who at one point contemplated entering the priesthood, and composed 20 masses between 1839 and 1895. Yet once engaged, he turned his full resources to the task.
Solomon himself is a less important character than his architect and engineer Adoniram, who at the outset is determined to cast a great metal bowl. When he meets Queen Balkis, the intended bride of Solomon, he is struck with her beauty, and she with his creative gifts, thus setting up the eternal triangle. In these two essential roles, Kara Shay Thomson appears as the Queen, with a soaring soprano that expresses both love and power. Tenor Dominick Chenes sang Adoniram with plangent tone from his most famous aria (Inspirez-moi, race divine) at the very outset of the opera through his death, murdered by three workmen, who have unsuccessfully demanded more pay for the part they play in the casting, and the secret password of craftsmen (another “magic” element of the plot).
Solomon’s part is limited to welcoming the arrival of Balkis in Act 2 and the frustration in Act 4, realizing the she does not return his feelings. The bass Kevin Thomson made an especially strong impression in the great duet (reinstated in the score after long absence) in which he tells Balkis what he has learned about her feelings for Adoniram, and endeavors to keep her from leaving him. At the beginning of the duet, Balkis urges the then powerful King Solomon to postpone their wedding for a time. As the duet continues, Solomon’s strength seems to fade, while Balkis becomes stronger, eventually drugging him into a stupor so that she can race off to meet Adoniram at a pre-arranged location. The recovery of this wonderful duet alone would justify the decision to perform this opera.
But there is more. The scene in which the three villainous workmen sabotage the casting so that mold breaks and the work is ruined, while Solomon and Balkis watch (Act 2) is very strong. Act 3 shows the developing warmth between Balkis and Adoniram. At first embarrassed by the failure of the casting, she assures him that this was not an issue for her. She does not love Solomon, but is attracted to the architect. Benoni, his apprentice, announces that, miraculously, the “ruined” has been saved. Magical Djinn spirits have labored through the night to repair the mold. At the end of the act (which, in this performance, was the point for intermission), a septet begins, first with Balkis, Adoniram, Benoni, and Sarahi, a servant girl, celebrates the happy event, while the three angry workers vow to get revenge. This septet, too, also long-unheard, climaxed the act.
Soprano Michelle Trainor superbly conveyed the trouser role of Benoni. The three villains, who always appeared together as plotters, included tenor Matthew DiBattista, baritone David Kravitz, and bass David Salsbery Fry (who also took the small part of the messenger, Sadoc). Together the three foreshadowed consistently dark menace until, in the last act, they murder Admoniram. Katherine Maysek provided vocal pleasures in the supporting role of Sarahil, Balkis maid.
The Odyssey Opera orchestra—a large mid-19th-century style ensemble (including quadruple horns and trumpets)—had the responsibility of carrying the musical flow for the entire running time of the opera, which they did with wonderful color and energy. Gil Rose led the entire performance as if he’d known the opera for years. The large chorus, too, had extensive and challenging passages, both for mixed chorus and for the men on one hand, and two groups of women (representing those in the service of Balkis and others in the service of Solomon). Chorusmaster William Cutter gets credit for their unanimity and color of sound, as well as for their enrichment of the overall sonority in the largest moments.
Given the rarity of La Reine de Saba, especially of the extensive passages omitted for decades, this would seem to be an excellent choice for Odyssey Opera to issue on compact discs, as they have already done with a number of smaller operas. It would be an expensive prospect, no doubt, but one that many opera buffs would welcome.
Odyssey Opera presents a very different Gounod opera, the comedy Le Médecin malgré (The Doctor In Spite of Himself) in fully staged performances on November 9th and 11th in the Huntington Avenue Theater.