Handel’s Solomon – René Jacobs

Solomon – Oratorio

Solomon – David Hansen
Solomon’s Queen (Act I) / First Harlot (Act II) – Malin Christensson
Zadok, the High Priest / Attendant – Jeremy Ovenden
A Levite – Henry Waddington
Second Harlot (Act II) / Queen of Sheba (Act III) – Marie Arnet

English Voices

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
René Jacobs

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 7 April, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Shorn of his own forces, René Jacobs brought the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and (new to me) English Voices for a performance of Handel’s late oratorio, “Solomon”, which he wrote in 1748 and which received its first performance, at Covent Garden, on 17 March 1749. Entirely appropriately (as they were written for this period), this current performance fell in lent, as do repeat performances in both Paris and New York.

Something of a curiosity, in that it eschews a narrative structure (marking it out from almost all of Handel’s other oratorios) and adopts an episodic style instead, the first act refers to the completion of Solomon’s Temple, the second to his wisdom in deciding between two women (or harlots as they are disingenuously termed) wrangling over a child and the third in his welcoming of the Queen of Sheba.

Apart from a superb orchestral contribution from the OAE, committed, distinctive and responsive to Jacobs’s direction (for all his stiff bobbing up and down, his heels spent as much time in the air as they did on the platform), the performance never quite reached the heights that might have been expected. Thus, coming back from the interval (sensibly placed after Act Two), the highlight of the performance was probably the best-known piece from the work, the ‘Entry of the Queen of Sheba’.

While it was good to hear young voices – the Solomon was dark and handsome Australian David Hansen (who has only recently made his UK debut, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Emmanuelle Haïm) – there was, in general, a lack of spark in the vocal contributions, particularly so in the rather bland English Voices. Given that the chorus (as was Handel’s wont in his oratorios) represents the mainstay of the work, too many of the words were less than clear (thankfully the unknown-authored libretto was given in surtitles) and entries were not clear enough. One thinks of the Gabrieli Consort’s Proms performance in 1998 and Paul McCreesh’s subsequent rendition, or indeed the OAE’s own chorus, and found English Voices somewhat wanting.

The soloists were less of a problem, although not particularly charismatic. Malin Christensson replaced an ill Lisa Milne as Solomon’s Queen in the first act and the First Harlot in the second, while Marie Arnet took the other two female roles, the Second Harlot and the Queen of Sheba (for which she changed into a black strapless dress).

Hansen, while not as pure as Andreas Scholl in this role, has a rather worldly timbre that seems appropriate for Solomon and it will certainly be interesting to see him develop.

So a curate’s egg of an evening. It was rather as if the project was Jacobs’s Christie-style “Jardin de Voix”, introducing young singers. While sensibly opting for a single work, and dispensing with the directorial stage silliness that has continually trivialised Christie’s young singers’ programme, it was the choir that was here the weakest link.

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