Handel’s ‘Solomon’ At Royal Opera Is One For The Ages

Christian Curnyn leading the orchestra of the Early Opera Company in rehearsal for ‘Solomon.’

LONDON – It’s only a mile or so, as crows fly east, from Handel’s Brook Street home in London (where he lived from 1723 until his death in 1759) to the site of the old Covent Garden Theatre (later the Theatre Royal), where seven of his operas and thirteen oratorios were given their first performances, starting with Oreste (1734), a pastiche of earlier music by Handel, and ending with The Triumph of Time and Truth (1757), an English reworking of his very first Italian oratorio, composed in 1707.

The Royal Opera House in London (Photo by Luke Hayes)

Never mind that the house adjoins an apartment occupied by Jimi Hendrix in 1968-69, the mere fact of which probably draws more visitors than Handel’s far longer stay next door.

The theater in which all these Handel scores were premiered was actually the first of three halls ultimately erected (following fires in 1808 and 1856) in the heart of the city’s market garden district, perhaps most famous today as the neighborhood in which the musical My Fair Lady (after Shaw’s Pygmalion) begins.

The present building, the Royal Opera House, is one of the world’s loveliest auditoriums, rich in red and gold and capped by a beautiful dome. Its lobby and corridors are loaded with memorabilia reflecting the hall’s stellar past, ranging from a bust of Sir Thomas Beecham to the costume Maria Callas wore in her last Tosca (in 1965) to autographed photos, programs, and posters from the sometimes separate, sometimes combined worlds of opera and ballet for which the room is still acclaimed.

It was in this space that Handel’s Solomon (1749) was revived in a single concert performance on Oct. 11, two days after the ROH’s second Ring cycle of the season.

Sophie Bevan was radiant as Solomon’s Queen (Sussi Ahlburg)

(Performances of the Ring continue through November 2; for details, click here. For all of the autumn season, click here. And incidentally, the program books are keepers; the one for Solomon runs 39 pages before the bios and credits, with articles by four distinguished scholars and a tabulation of Handel’s works premiered on this site.)

The Handel presentation was remarkable in many respects, not least of which was the utter splendor of the (historically informed) orchestral playing. The band was the orchestra of the Early Opera Company directed by its founder, Christian Curnyn. Performances on original instruments (or reproductions thereof) are ubiquitous; this one was certainly the finest this listener has yet heard, in Europe or America, rock-solid in terms of intonation, phrasing, richness of tone, orchestral color, accuracy, articulation, and ensemble — in other words, in every conceivable technical and artistic respect. There were several instances of brief tuning, invariably at the outset of each act, but no pauses for adjustment between numbers. (We have come a very long way in this regard!)

Not everyone is aboard this HIP (historically informed performance) train, but it’s easy to imagine that those in attendance who aren’t may well not have noticed the fact that this wasn’t a thoroughly modern orchestra.

Susan Bickley was the Queen of Sheba and Second Harlot (Julie Kim)

The instrumentalists (headed by Catherine Martin, leader) seemed to play their hearts out for Curnyn, whose watchfulness and enthusiasm could from time to time be seen over the pit rail but who was more frequently visible because the mirrored stage backdrop, most likely borrowed from some ballroom scene in a great romantic or early 20th-century opera, showed clear reflections of the TV monitor in the hall that was intended to facilitate observation of the conductor from all parts of the stage – to say nothing of its concurrent reflections of the dazzling crystal chandelier and of the house lights on the edges of each balcony. The introduction to Act III showed them in particularly good light as “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” arguably the score’s biggest tune, emerged joyfully from the pit.

Forty-eight members of the Royal Opera Chorus, prepared by (American) William Spaulding, dazzled in a manner akin to that aforementioned chandelier, singing Solomon‘s splendid choruses with spot-on precision, keen musical insight, and flawless diction, the likes of which are too rarely heard across the Great Pond. Part of the reason for the perception that this was some truly exceptional choral singing (as opposed to the American variety) doubtless stems from the fact that these folks were singing English as Handel likely intended. In any event, from the opening “Your harps and cymbals sound” to “Praise the Lord with harp and tongue,” the grand finale, these artists provided an ideal choral setting before which the oratorio’s not inconsiderable drama unfolded. (That final chorus is not invariably the work’s conclusion; other scholars end with different numbers, often “The name of the wicked,” with “Praise the Lord” coming before the Queen of Sheba’s farewell.)

Lawrence Zazzo displayed warmth and unfailing accuracy (Justin Hyer)

The solo artists were consistently outstanding in voice, in appearance, and in the tiny bits of acting this concert performance permitted them. First among equals was Solomon himself, American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, whose charm of manner equaled the warmth and unfailing accuracy of his singing. Tenor Ed Lyon, a ten-year vet of the ROH, proved to be an admirable Zadok, and baritone Richard Burkhard (Levite), whose career began in the choir at Windsor Castle, was consistently impressive – so much so that one wished Handel had taken the trouble to write several more arias for him!

The women were soprano Sophie Bevan (Solomon’s Queen and First Harlot) and mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley (Queen of Sheba and Second Harlot). They commanded attention in Act II, in the dispute over the infant, after which Solomon’s wisdom is so movingly displayed (a section of the oratorio that Beecham, alas, omitted in his famous recording), and each was radiant in her respective regal numbers.

There were supertitles, but given the exemplary diction and projection from all concerned, the texts were hardly needed.

Together, the instrumentalists, the chorus, and the solo artists produced a clear reading of Solomon for the ages, if we dare count around 270 years as such.

John W. Lambert is editor in chief of Classical Voice North Carolina.