Solomon, an oratorio in three acts, music by George Frideric Handel, text anonymous, orchestra conducted by Christian Curnyn, a collaboration between The Royal Opera and Early Opera Company, Covent Garden 11th October 2018, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Actors should never appear with children or animals. They can upstage you. The countertenor seems to enjoy an analogous advantage over his fellow performers, especially when the singer in question is as technically gifted as Lawrence Zazzo, in the role of King Solomon. With his floral waist coat and his extrovert manner, his imperious demeanour and expressive hands, he commanded the stage like royalty and at times seemed to be enjoying a private joke – “Happy, happy Solomon”, indeed. His stand out performance drew several rounds of spontaneous applause. Soprano Sophie Bevan, who combined the roles of his wife and the first harlot, also excelled.
Commenting on Philip Glass’s minimalist opera Akhnaten (although Glass himself prefers the term “use of repetitive techniques”), John Richardson refers to its “…historical allusions, everything from the musical Baroque to modernism”. In the 1740’s, as enthusiasm for Italian opera abated, Handel “found himself turning more and more to English-language texts whilst also looking away from stage works towards the great oratorios of his later years” (Daniel Snowman, official programme). The oratorio is itself a form of minimalism. It derives its dynamism partly from repetition. Elaborate sets and costume changes etc are dispensed with.
Solomon was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1749. For this current performance, the stage was illuminated by a magnificent chandelier with mirrors arrayed in the background. One of the most striking aspects of Solomon is its celebration of what Marie Stopes euphemistically called married love, as in the Queen’s air, Act 1, scene 2,
Bless’d the day when first my eyes
Saw the wisest of the wise!
Bless’d the day when I was led
To ascend the nuptial bed!
But completely bless’d the day,
On my bosom as he lay,
When he called my charms divine,
Vowing to be only mine.
Another notable component is the evocation of the beauty of nature or pantheism, as in lines from the Act 2, scene 1, air,
When the sun o’er yonder hills,
Pours in tides the golden day,
Or, when quiv’ring o’er the rills,
In the west he dies away;
In Act 2, scene 2, after Solomon issues his famous judgment, a chorus of Israelites (or sycophants) proclaim,
From the east unto the west,
Who so wise as Solomon?
For Solomon, read King George II, who as Katharine Dell informs us in the official programme, Handel was eager to please.
Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR