If the Beggar’s Opera finally soured the British public on Handel’s ways with opera, his oratorios on Biblical personalities (Saul, Israel in Egypt, Messiah, Samson, Semele, Balshazzsar, Judas Maccabaeus, and Joshua) attracted it, while also avoiding Lenten bans on secular theatricals. One such, Solomon (1748), was last heard locally in 1997 (with Craig Smith and Emmanuel Music, and 19 years before that with Donald Teeters and Boston Cecelia). Last Saturday night at Jordan Hall, the Cantata Singers Chorus and Orchestra, with contralto Emily Marvosh in the title role, gave us a Solomon for the ages.
Countertenors and castrati have taken the part, but Marvosh was as good at it gets. Resplendent and regal in stance, she cast spells even while seated and intently listening. In a white pantsuit with high heels, she radiated both beauty and calm authority, and sang exquisitely and movingly all evening. I have long enjoyed Marvosh’s singing, with Lorelei and in recital (see Ferrier and Walter Movingly Evoked).
Even with such a protagonist and a fine chorus, Solomon can feel like a long evening, but these forces made a compelling case for Handel’s difficult choruses, seven of which are in eight parts. The basses in particular stood out.
Under David Hoose, the valorous conductor of the Cantata Singers for the past 37 years, the Cantata Singers orchestra, first-rate throughout, positively thrilled us when the trumpets (Fred Holmgren and Greg Whitaker) and timpani (Robert Schulz) entered in Act 2. The well-known “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba”, the only familiar music from Solomon, proceeded at an energetic clip and surely left many humming. The flutes (Jacqueline DeVoe and Vanessa Holroyd) and oboes (the perpetually pleasing Peggy Pearson and Jennifer Slowik) imparted pleasure throughout. The hardworking continuo, particularly bassist Andrew Arceci and harpsichordist Michael Beattie, responded to the singers with most sympathetic excellence.
Hoose writes that Solomon is based on Kings 1:3-11, 22, 28-29; Chronicles II: 1-9; and “The Early History of the Jews” by the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (C.E. 37-c. 100). Reviewers from the last 40 years have thought the poet (like that of Handel’s Susanna) was unknown, others positing that poet and playwright Moses Mendes (d. 1758) wrote the rather archaic lyrics. “But,” writes Hoose, “Handel’s consummate musical skill and imagination transforms the text into something gracious, elegant, and often deep, and the result is one of Handel’s grandest, most profound oratorios.” Indeed.
The first act depicts Solomon dealing with the inauguration of the newly completed Temple, and ends with Solomon enticing his Queen (Alexandra Whitfield) toward the cedar grove, where “amorous turtles… love beneath the pleasing gloom.” One assumes they enjoy marital bliss then or shortly afterwards, backstage at intermission. (This is one energetic monarch). Act II certainly constitutes Solomon’s dramatic highpoint. Here we witness the two “harlots” (mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Webb and Lynn Torgove) arguing (beautifully) about who should get the newborn, each claiming to be its mother. The rivals sing a moving trio with Solomon, who offers to divide the baby. We know the results. Solomon’s quick thinking wins praise for his genius as a judge. Act III portrays the state visit of the Queen of Sheba, also known as the Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia, (Karyl Ryczek), who is dazzled by the opulence of King Solomon’s court.
And here, generous praise for singers whom I have admired over the years: Mark Andrew Cleveland (a Levite); William Hite (Zadok the High Priest); Jason Sabol (an Attendant) and Jennifer Webb (First Woman in Act II).
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.