by Charles Gounod Queen of Sheba, 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), conducted by Gil Rose. BMOP/sound OO1004 [3 CDs] 165 minutes of one. Click on HERE to buy or listen to any track.
Boston’s Odyssey Opera Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco The importance of being serious, by Gunther Schuller The fisherman and his wife (first performed at the New England Conservatory), and At Norman Dello Joio’s The Rouen trial have already been hosted on these pages. And last October, the related and equally adventurous Boston Modern Orchestra Project, about to release his 100and recording, won Gramophone Classical’s Special Achievement Awarda for reviving and commissioning an array of important, new and overlooked American works over the past 25 years.
Odyssey Opera’s Latest Rediscoveries Include Charles Gounod’s First Complete Recording The Queen of Sheba (The Queen of Sheba), a work which received its first performance at the Paris Opera in 1862. Large pieces of music are apparently emerging here for the first time. And the sequence of events is sometimes surprising to anyone familiar with the (few and scarcely available) previous recordings of the work. For example, the grand aria from Adoniram, well known from some tenor recital records, now opens the opera instead of being placed in the second act.
You can get a clear idea of the work and performance from this eight minute video.
Opera is a typical example of French Grand Opera, a genre which dominated opera in many countries for decades and which, like the historical and epic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, focused about notable times and events marked by conflict, involved a great deal of expense in sets and costumes, and tried to be broadly accessible in manner and style. The resulting works, with all their inherent aesthetic compromises (high ideals, audience-pleasing theatrical and musical effects) and financial demands (there are sometimes as many as seven leading roles), largely disappeared from the repertoire by the early 20and century. This was true even of those who had long been well known and widely loved, like Meyerbeer. The Huguenots and Halevy The Jewess.
A renewed appreciation for the diversity and bloody glamor of romantic music and theater in recent decades has brought back many such works, including Verdi’s complete five-act version Don Carlos (yes, written for Paris, before it became Italian, and lost its first act, like don carlo) and the magnificent of Berlioz The Trojans.
From Gounod The Queen of Sheba, only this aria for tenor and an aria for Queen Balkis (“Greater, in His Darkness”) are familiar to us. During the last years, Bryan Hymel recorded the former and Elina Garanca the last.
The work – unsurprisingly, since the composer is Gounod – is full of appealing melodies, grateful and well-characterized vocal lines, colorful and varied orchestration, juicy choruses and sudden welcome dramatic changes in 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 near-borrowings. But it’s normal in 19andcentury opera. Verdi, often seeming to rob himself, and the turns of phrase of La Traviata arise in He finds.
There are also lyrical echoes of other genres: Adoniram’s casting of a large metal bowl, under great pressure to succeed, recalls the casting of the statue of Perseus in Berlioz’s work. Benvenuto Cellini, and the three wicked workers who conspire against Adoniram seem thinly disguised copies of Meyerbeer’s three Anabaptists. The Prophet.
Yet taking the work as an entity unto itself, the plots and characterizations are cohesive and satisfying, and the ever-engaging music suits the story at all times. The extra passages sound fully as strong as the rest. Steven Huebner, in his masterful book on Gounod’s operas (Oxford University Press), points out certain weaknesses of the libretto, such as the fact that Solomon “does not engender sympathy nor is it effective as an antagonist [to the tenor-hero Adoniram]”. A reviewer at the time found that the six main characters “are insane and ridiculous if not cowards, villains, cheats, or repellents”.
But even Huebner admits that Solomon’s great aria (opening of Act 4) is “moving,” “with many fine touches, including . . . a descending chromatic sequence over a pedal that effectively projects how much his heart has melted” (p. 205). And, as a listening (and reading) experience at home rather than an evening at the theatre, the work reveals itself as a series of treasured and appropriately contrasting moments, some of them reaching a point a very satisfying climax, and, as I said, all extraordinarily well crafted for vocals and orchestra, as one would expect of a gifted composer working at the height of his career.
The opera is based on a tale by Gérard de Nerval developing 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), instantly falls in love with Balkis (the Queen of Sheba), creating a dilemma for King Solomon, who is attracted to Balkis by him. -same. . Balkis and Adoniram try to escape, but Adoniram is murdered by that trio of workers I mentioned, who (like Iago in othello (and at Verdi otello, which came later than the Gounods) are angry that they were denied a raise in pay and rank. Solomon also rejects their request to know the password that would allow them to access his plans and materials.
A complete but not fully complete version of The Queen appeared once on recordings (from the Martina Franca Festival; currently only available for download), with a consistently solid cast led by a superb soprano with a rich but firm voice and a very convincing delivery of the French text: Francesca Scaini. The Solomon sings well but, being a baritone rather than a bass, it lacks some crucial low notes.
Two bootleg recordings are currently on YouTube, with truly wonderful singers, almost all of whom are native French speakers (for example, tenor Gilbert Py, in 1969, and soprano Karine Deshayes, in 2019). Odyssey Opera cannot compete in vocal dynamism with these recordings. But the singers here all do an honorable job of getting us to hear the work in its entirety.
I particularly enjoyed tenor Dominick Chenes in the central role of architect Adoniram, and Kara Shay Thomson as the foreign queen who wins his heart. Kevin Thompson has a nice deep voice for King Solomon, but it’s often wonky and off-key. Michelle Trainor sings well but seems ill-chosen as Adoniram’s assistant, Benoni: it’s a trouser role (like Cherubino or Octavian), and Trainor’s slow vibrato makes her look a lot like a mature woman.
Things get a little dicey in some small roles. Instability can obstruct harmonies when several characters are arguing at the same time, as in certain passages for the three disgruntled workmen. French pronunciation is erratic: in some words an “s” should be pronounced like a “z” but here it is not; and vowels can also be problematic: ‘orgueil’ sounds like ‘orgoy’.
The choir seems extremely well formed (their French is great!), and the orchestra is quite alert and sonorous. Congratulations to the clarinettist, probably first president Jan Halloran, who plays the obligatory solos of Benoni’s aria so well!
This two-minute video gives an idea of what it took to restore three major musical numbers that are musically and dramatically strong but were cut from the opera early on, perhaps to prevent it becoming too long. These include a septet, also a full duet for King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
A disadvantage that needs to be mentioned is the frequent errors in the booklet printed in the booklet. For example, the words Devil– which means “of my” – have been mistranscribed as Devil and, therefore, translated as “demon”, thus introducing an unwanted demon into the scene. “Let him have fewer of my workers!” should rather be something like “Let him at least allow me to have my workers [so I can get the job done]And a precious ring that Balkis gave to Solomon is not “a slight abandonment of his faith” (whatever that might mean) but “a sweet sign of his devotion”. Is there anyone in the Boston area – with all its institutions of higher education – who can render a French text accurately and know that, although son can often mean ‘his’, it can at other times mean ‘his’ or (as in this case) ‘she’?