Saturday 20 August 2022

Prom 43: Handel's Solomon

The Judgement of Solomon: workshop of Peter Paul Rubens
The Judgement of Solomon: workshop of Peter Paul Rubens

Handel: Solomon - Iestyn Davies, Anna Dennis, Wallis Giunta, Benjamin Hulett, Ashley Riches, BBC Singers, The English Concert, Sofi Jeannin; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed 19 August 2022 (★★★★)

Featuring some of Handel's loveliest music, his oratorio Solomon returns to the BBC Proms after a gave of nearly 25 years with a superb line-up of performers

You rather suspect that if you had asked Handel, in the 1740s, what an oratorio was his response would have been the 18th century equivalent of 'Whatever I damn well want it to be', certainly the oratorio slot in his concert output was filled with an enormous variety of dramatic styles. What got the public's attention, however, were the ones with a clear dramatic Biblical story such as Samson, which had been a big hit in 1743, and Belshazzar in 1746. But the late 1740s and early 1750s saw Handel almost determinedly not returning to this style of oratorio. Alexander Balus (1748) was the last in a series of dramatically thin oratorios that celebrated the victories of the Hanoverian regime but which made little lasting impact, Susanna (1749) was almost an English pastoral opera, Theodora (1750) wasn't even Biblical and though now recognised as a masterpiece was certainly not popular in Handel's day. His last oratorio, Jephtha (1751) marked a return to the dramatic Biblical story, yet with a treatment of its subject that is remarkable. 

It is probably no coincidence that the protagonist of Jephtha was the great dramatic tenor, John Beard, for whom Handel had written Samson back in 1743. Whilst Beard sang major dramatic roles in Belshazzar (1745) and Judas Maccabeus (1747), he disappears from Handel's roster for a few years, his place taken by the more lyric, less dramatically inclined tenor Thomas Lowe. The non-Beard oratorios tend to place the drama elsewhere, with the tenor soloist reverting to the background.

Following Alexander Balus, Handel seems to have deliberately been turning his back on the bellicose, war-like oratorios and his next oratorio was Solomon (1749), a work that avoided the king's warrior achievements and instead celebrated a just and wise monarch ruling a stable society. There is little in the way of narrative and plenty of pageant.  The episodic nature of the libretto (by an unknown hand) seems to hark back both to the English masque and to the more haphazard style of Italian opera. And this harking back is reflected in the casting, Solomon wasn't sung by a man, instead Handel went back to Italian opera style casting and Solomon was Caterina Galli. Orchestrally, the work uses one of Handel's biggest orchestras with two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and timpani, but he used a very compact cast. Caterina Galli was Solomon, Giulia Frasi was Solomon's Queen, the First Harlot and the Queen of Sheba, with Thomas Lowe as Zadok and Henry Reinhold as A Levite, plus two bit parts, Second Harlot and Attendant.

Handel: Solomon - Sofi Jeannin, Wallis Giunta, Iestyn Davies, The English Concert - BBC Proms (photo BBC)
Handel: Solomon - Sofi Jeannin (conductor), Wallis Giunta (Queen of Sheba), Iestyn Davies (Solomon), The English Concert - BBC Proms (photo BBC)

We last heard Solomon at the BBC Proms in 1998, and chatting before the concert yesterday it was surprising how many people seemed to be unfamiliar with the work. At BBC Prom 43 on 19 August 2022 at the Royal Albert Hall, the chief conductor of the BBC Singers, Sofi Jeannin conducted the BBC Singers and the English Concert with Iestyn Davies as Solomon, Anna Dennis as Solomon's Queen and the First Harlot, Wallis Giunta as the Queen of Sheba and Second Harlot, Benjamin Hulett as Zadok, and Ashley Riches as a Levite. 

We had a moderately expansive version of the music, though both Hulett and Riches lost one of their arias. There was a choir of 24, which is hardly generous numbers for a work which has so many large-scale double choruses, and the orchestra used a base of 30 strings. Now, when Paul McCreesh recorded Solomon after that BBC Proms performance in 1998, he used a base of 33 strings with eight oboes and four bassoons. At the Royal Albert Hall on Friday, Sofi Jeannin used just two oboes and two bassoons; the result was a rather too string-heavy sound, often in the concerted passages the sound of the fine oboe playing was present but not in a strong enough way. Similarly the continuo group used a single harpsichord and a small organ, neither of which projected strongly enough in the Royal Albert Hall space. For much of the performance, very fine though it was, the predominant texture was choir and strings, which is not quite what Handel wanted. I can recommend going back to the McCreesh recording to hear what I mean.

Iestyn Davies made a profoundly beautiful Solomon, singing everything with gorgeous tone and lovely phrasing. His manner was perhaps, slightly cool, but he seduced with his voice giving us plenty of superbly shaped music. This counted for a lot not just in the arias and ensembles, but in the recitatives and Solomon has a number of accompanied ones and Davies' really made these count. But we also see Solomon through his interactions with the four women in the work.

First is his Queen (Anna Dennis), who is described in the text as Egyptian. Dennis made quite a cool Queen, singing beautifully. Her solo at the end of Act One was plangent, beautifully shaped with lovely tone, yet her duet with Davies which preceded it was more engagingly civilised than erotic, and there was little sense in this sequence - the duet, Davies' urgent account of 'Haste, haste to the cedar grove', the Queen's solo, the final Nightingale Chorus - of a single erotic/seductive dramatic entity, the feeling that the final chorus with its delicate flutes and chorus textures represents the culmination of the King and Queen's erotic flirtation. We should feel what they get up to in that cedar grove!

Act Two moves on to considering Solomon's wisdom, with the scene with the two harlots (Anna Dennis and Wallis Giunta) taking central place. Here Dennis was heart-rending with her plangently beautiful account of the First Harlot's music whilst Giunta made a strong contrast, bringing out the vivid character in the music. The result was a scene that had strong dramatic impetus with the highly characterised trio at its centre. Then at the end, comes the First Harlot's final aria, the pastoral delight of 'Beneath the vine, or fig-tree's shade'.

In Act Three, we celebrate Solomon's importance as a ruler impressing others, with a visit from the Queen of Sheba (Wallis Giunta). The central piece in this act is a long descriptive section for Solomon and the chorus; not dramatic, but full of superb word painting, and then finally the Queen of Sheba has one of the best-known works in the oratorio, 'Will the sun forget to streak', sung with strong character by Wallis Giunta accompanied by the fabulous sound of two flutes, oboe and strings. The final duet, for Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was sprightly, full of character and joy.

The two lower solo voices have little dramatic import, their arias simply reinforce the message. Ashley Riches made up for this with some fine dramatic singing, dark and sober in Act One, trenchant in Act Two and always with superb diction. Benjamin Hulett sang with frank, open tone, and admirable clarity of words, ending with a stylish account of his aria in Act Three. Peter Davoren (a member of the BBC Singers) gave good service in the small role of the attendant.

A word about words. These were somewhat at a premium. The Royal Albert Hall is a tricky place to get words over and we often needed our printed librettos. Not all the soloists managed it, though they were clearly trying hard, and the chorus rather too often seemed to have musical concerns rather than textual ones.

The chorus made a strong, bright sound with an admirably lithe feel to the tone. Throughout they were on impressive form, though as I have said, musical concerns were to the fore rather than text. There was no physical separation between the two choirs which was, I think, a shame. Yet there was plenty to enjoy, from the bit dramatic double choruses to the seductive beauty of the Nightingale Chorus.

The orchestra was on strong form. Given the forces and the balance, what we got was finely played with lots of lovely solo work from flutes and oboes, as well as a fine, strong string band.

Handel: Solomon - Wallis Giunta, Anna Dennis, Iestyn Davies, Sofi Jeannin, , The English Concert - BBC Proms (photo BBC)
Handel: Solomon - Wallis Giunta (Second Harlot), Anna Dennis (First Harlot), Iestyn Davies (Solomon), Sofi Jeannin, , The English Concert
BBC Proms (photo BBC)

For all the beauty of the music, Solomon is a tricky work to bring off. Here we had lots of superb singing with a balanced cast who each gave something to the work and a fine chorus indeed. However, for all the incidentally beauties, and certainly this is one of Handel's most attractive scores, there was a certain dramatic lassitude. Tempi were fast to moderate, yet I felt that we were admiring individual moments rather than the richly textured whole.

The performance is available on BBC Sounds.

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