Saturday 28 April 2007

Review of Solomon

The closing concert of this year's London Handel Festival was a performance of Solomon. Written in 1748, Solomon is the first in the final sequence of great oratorios Solomon, Susanna, Theodora, Jephtha.

Solomon and Susanna were written almost simultaneously and probably had the same, unknown, librettist. Rather than any sort of dramatic plot, the oratorio presents a series of episodes from Solomon's reign. The work is quite expansive in the forces used, many of the choruses are for double choir, and the orchestra includes oboes and flutes at times playing simultaneously, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani. This expansiveness is not just a result of some sort of economic ease, Susanna uses smaller forces; thus implying that Handel wanted the work to be expansive.

The festival performs in St. George's Church, Hanover Square which was Handel's parish church. But, of course, the oratorios were not written for church performance, but for Handel's theatre. And the playing space at St. Georges is highly restrictive. The performance used a choir of 18 hard-working singers and an orchestra with a mere 13 strings. The singers and musicians in the London Handel Chorus and Orchestra are both extremely hard-working and very talented. So, some moments of raw, exposed string tone apart, the results were extremely creditable. But there is no doubt that we were hearing a performance with slightly too few forces.

Space also meant that the soloists were rather crammed in. Though the decision to place Nathan Vale (singing the High Priest, Zadok) in the pulpit was an imaginative one.

Solomon was written for a female contralto. Though Handel had written a number of major tenor parts in his oratorios, he seems to have though of Solomon as a young, romantic hero in operatic terms and so wrote for him in the vocal range associated with this type of role in Italian opera.

The role seems to suit the counter-tenor voice, but this is one area where I have usually preferred female contraltos. The planned singer, Iestyn Davies, was ill so we were lucky to have Christopher Ainslie stand in for him. Ainslie sang the title role in Poro which was presented earlier in the festival at the Britten Theatre. He had also just gained second place in the Handel Singing Competition held in the church 3 days earlier.

Ainslie's Solomon was beautifully toned, well supported and nicely phrased. Ainslie is a very musical singer. I would have like more of a sense of drama and more of a feeling of letting go at the crucial moments, but given the last-minute nature of his substitution we must wait for a further opportunity to hear what he can do in this role. But there is no sense of short change, Ainslie's was a highly effective and affecting performance.

In Act 1, his Queen was Mona Julsrud. Julsrud is a stylish Handelian singer, but I did find that there were moments of hardness of tone in her voice. More worryingly, I did not find here contributions to the end of Act 1 either sexy or erotic. Solomon was a theatre piece and the close of the first act is about the joys of married love; the libretto makes it perfectly clear what Solomon and his Queen get up to. Unfortunately Ainslie and Julsrud sounded a little to chaste.

They were well supported by the choir who turned in a beautiful account of the nightingale chorus, complete with antiphonal flute players in the balcony.

In Act 2, Julsrud and soprano Elisabeth Atherton were the 2 Harlots. This seems to be the new orthodoxy with regard to casting this piece, using just 2 sopranos and having the 2nd soprano play the Queen of Sheba and the mezzo-soprano Harlot. Julsrud and Atherton were superb as the Harlots and here we got some real drama. Ainslie's understated performance worked well as Solomon's reserve when in judgement. Atherton was also a lovely Queen of Sheba in Act 3.

Nathan Vale was a fine Zadok, producing some lovely tone and very fine passage work. Zadok's contributions are not strictly dramatic, but they are very fine arias so it was lovely to hear them all.

The part of the Levite is rather less involving; Njal Sparbo did what he could and contributed some very imaginative and elaborate ornaments, but he did have a tendency to bluster.

The choir worked overtime and sang superbly. Inevitably there were moments when one would have liked more singers, but the results were always focussed and clear. The tone rarely felt pressed in the bigger choruses and the smaller numbers brought a fine sense of crisp ensemble.

The orchestra were similarly impressive. Director Lawrence Cummings balanced his forces well and the great orchestral moments came over as expected.

All in all, a highly involving performance that more than made up for the uncomfortable seats and bad sight-lines that St. George's provides.

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