Charles Gounod’s La reine de Saba, libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, performed at Jordan Hall in 2018 with Kara Shay Thomson (Queen Balkis), Michelle Trainor (Bénoni), Dominick Chenes (Adoniram), Kevin Thompson (King Solomon), conductor Gil Rose. BMOP/sound OO1004 [3 CDs] 165 minutes. Click HERE to purchase or audition any track.
Boston’s Odyssey Opera’s Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Gunther Schuller’s The Fisherman and His Wife (first performed at the New England Conservatory), and Norman Dello Joio’s The Trial at Rouen have been previously welcomed on these pages. And last October, the related and equally adventurous Boston Modern Orchestra Project, on the cusp of releasing its 100th recording, earned Gramophone Classical ‘s Special Achievement Awarda for reviving and commissioning a spectrum of significant new and neglected American works over the last 25 years.
Odysssey Opera’s latest rediscoveries include the first complete recording of Charles Gounod’s La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba), a work that received its first performance at the Paris Opéra in 1862. Large chunks of music apparently emerge here for the first time. And the sequence of events is sometimes surprising to anyone who might know the (few and not readily available) previous recordings of the work. For example, Adoniram’s big aria, well-known from some tenor-recital discs, now opens the opera instead of being placed in the second act.
You can get quite a vivid sense of the work and the performance from this eight-minute video.
The opera is a typical instance of French Grand Opera, a genre that dominated opera houses in many lands for decades and that, similar to the historical-epic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, focused on notable strife-riven eras and events, involved much expensive scenery and costumes, and tried to be widely accessible in manner and style. The resulting works, with all their built-in aesthetic compromises (high ideals, crowd-pleasing theatrical and musical effects) and their financial demands (sometimes there were as many as seven leading roles), largely disappeared from the repertory in the early 20th century. This was true even of those that had long been well known and widely loved, such as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and Halévy’s La Juive.
A renewed appreciation for the diversity and full-blooded glamor of Romantic music and theater in the past few decades has brought many such works back, including the full five-act version of Verdi’s Don Carlos (yes, written for Paris, before it got Italianized, and lost its first act, as Don Carlo) and Berlioz’s magnificent Les Troyens.
Of Gounod’s La Reine de Saba, only that tenor aria and an aria for Queen Balkis (“Plus grand, dans son obscurité”) are at all familiar. In recent years, Bryan Hymel has recorded the former and Elīna Garanča the latter.
The work—no surprise, since the composer is Gounod—is full of attractive melodies, grateful and well-characterized vocal lines, colorful and varied orchestration, juicy choruses, and some welcome sudden shifts of dramatic tone. If you know his Faust or well-established operas by other composers from the previous decade or two (e.g., Rigoletto, especially the storm scene), you may notice some near-borrowings. But this is normal in 19th-century opera. Verdi, often seemingly stole from himself, and turns of phrase from La Traviata crop up in Il trovatore.
There are also operatic echoes of other kinds: Adoniram’s casting of a great metal bowl, under great pressure to succeed, recalls the casting of the statue of Perseus in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, and the three nasty workmen who conspire against Adoniram seem barely disguised copies of the three Anabaptists in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète.
Still, taking the work as an entity unto itself, the plot-turns and characterizations are coherent and satisfying, and the music, consistently engaging, suits the story at each moment. The additional passages seem fully as strong as the rest. Steven Huebner, in his masterful book on Gounod’s operas (Oxford University Press), points out some weaknesses in the libretto, such as that Solomon “neither engenders sympathy nor is effective as an antagonist [to the tenor-hero Adoniram]”. One reviewer at the time found that all six main characters “are foolish and ridiculous if they are not cowards, villains, cheats, or repulsive.”
But even Huebner admits that Solomon’s big aria (beginning of Act 4) is “stirring,” “with many fine touches, including . . . a descending chromatic sequence above a pedal that effectively projects the extent to which his heart has melted” (p. 205). And, as a home-listening (and reading) experience rather than an evening in the theater, the work reveals itself as a series of treasurable and appropriately contrasting moments, some of them building to a very satisfying climax, and, as I said, all extraordinarily well crafted for both voices and orchestra, as might well be expected of a gifted composer working at the height of his career.
The opera is based on a tale by Gérard de Nerval expanding upon the biblical account of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon’s court in Jerusalem. Adoniram, the architect of the great Temple (he had been sent by the ruler of the Phoenician city of Tyre), falls instantly in love with Balkis (the Queen of Sheba), creating a dilemma for King Solomon, who is drawn to Balkis himself. Balkis and Adoniram attempt to elope, but Adoniram is murdered by that threesome of workers that I mentioned, who (like Iago in Othello (and in Verdi’s Otello, which came later than the Gounod) are angry at having been denied a raise in pay and rank. Solomon also rejects their demand to know the password that would allow them access to his plans and materials.
A full-length but not totally complete version of La Reine has appeared once on recordings (from the Martina Franca Festival; currently available only as a download), with a consistently strong cast led by a superb soprano with a rich yet firm voice and very persuasive delivery of the French text: Francesca Scaini. The Solomon sings well but, being a baritone rather than bass, lacks certain crucial low notes.
Two pirate recordings are currently on YouTube, with some truly marvelous singers, nearly all native French-speakers (e.g., tenor Gilbert Py, in 1969, and soprano Karine Deshayes, in 2019). Odyssey Opera cannot compete in vocal pizazz with these recordings. But the singers here all do an honorable job in letting us hear the work in complete form.
I particularly enjoyed tenor Dominick Chenes in the central role of the architect Adoniram, and Kara Shay Thomson as the foreign queen who wins his heart. Kevin Thompson has a fine deep voice for King Solomon, but is frequently wobbly and off-pitch. Michelle Trainor sings well but seems miscast as Adoniram’s assistant Bénoni: this is a pants role (like Cherubino or Octavian), and Trainor’s slowish vibrato makes her sound very much like a mature woman.
Things get a little dicey in some smaller roles. Unsteadiness can occlude the harmonies when several characters are holding forth at the same time, as in some passages for the three disaffected workmen. French pronunciation is erratic: in some words an “s” should be pronounced as a “z” but here is not; and vowels can be problematic, too: “orgueil” sounds like “orgoy”.
The chorus seems extremely well trained (their French is great!), and the orchestra is quite alert and sonorous. All praise to the clarinetist, presumably first-chair Jan Halloran, who plays the obbligato solos in Bénoni’s aria so beautifully!
This two-minute video gives a sense of what it took to restore three major musical numbers that are musically and dramatically strong yet got cut from the opera early on, perhaps in order to keep it from becoming too lengthy. These include a septet, also an extensive duet for King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
One drawback that must be mentioned is the frequent errors in the libretto printed in the booklet. For example, the words de mon—meaning “of my”—have been mistranscribed as démon and, accordingly, translated as “demon,” thereby introducing an unwanted devil into the scene. “Let him have less of my workers!” should instead be something like “Let him at least allow me to have my workers [so I can get the job done]!” And a valuable ring that Balkis has given Solomon is not “a gentle departure from his faith” (whatever that might mean) but “a sweet token of her devotion.” Really, are there no people in the Boston area—with all its institutions of higher learning—who can render a French text accurately and know that, though son can often mean “his,” it can at other times mean “its” or (as in this case) “her”?