Solomon – oratorio in three Acts
Solomon – Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
Solomon’s Queen/First Harlot – Anna Dennis (soprano)
Queen of Sheba/Second Harlot – Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano)
Zadok – Benjamin Hulett (tenor)
A Levite – Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Attendant – Peter Davoren (tenor)
The English Concert
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 19 August, 2022
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Solomon was not one of Handel’s greatest hits when it was first heard in 1748, but it has been served well enough by the Proms, the most recent being the 1998 performance under Paul McCreesh, with substantially larger forces than for this latest outing with.
Rather than telling the King of Israel’s story, the oratorio is a feel-good appraisal of uxorial love, monarchy, faith and a great deal of wealth, probably aimed at flattering King George II. This may explain why Solomon, unlike, say, Saul, Semele, Theodora or Messiah, so far has not been staged – although there was a concert performance at the Royal Opera House in October 2018 performed on the set of Keith Warner’s Ring cycle. Yet there is a great deal of ensemble work among the three leads and, to great effect, the chorus to bolster any dramatic potential – the love scene between Solomon and his new queen in Act One that steered a bit too close to eroticism for Victorian comfort; the drama of Solomon’s famous solution to the maternity dispute between the two Harlots in Act Two; and the even more famous sinfonia – known (not by Handel) as ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ – that leads Act Three into the masque in praise of that exotic monarch’s many attributes, including her wealth and beauty. The libretto (author unknown) is a wildly opulent confection of eighteenth-century imagery that sometimes gets the better of the music, as in Act Three, not that words were much of a feature in this performance.
Had it not been for the calibre of singing from Iestyn Davies, Anna Dennis and Wallis Giunta, the performance would have struggled to be better than just worthy. The moments of obvious drama in the love-scene and the maternity dispute had a vestigial, awkward interaction probably better not attempted. The BBC Singers didn’t have the volume to do justice to the spacious double choruses, while the English Concert’s wash of unobtrusive period string sound from 30 dominated without much in the way of character and really needed the sheer welly of the various wind duos – flutes, oboes, horns and trumpets – to make any impact. Sofi Jeannin conducted with impeccable, tempo-secure manners, but even she couldn’t coax much in the way of nuance from chorus and instrumentalists. The levels of emotion and style of engagement stayed at medium level throughout, workable but a bit flat.
I would, though, have crossed many a road to hear the bloom in Iestyn Davies’s singing, with an edge that both melted and caressed in his duet with his Queen, his decorations had a wonderful organic fluency, and his authority went straight to the point of his wisdom with the squabbling harlots. Anna Dennis’s one solo as King Solomon’s Queen flaunted some expertly florid coloratura and was charm itself in the aria’s sexy middle section. Dennis had more to do as the First Harlot, whose baby the Second Harlot stole, replacing it with the corpse of her child, raising the temperature significantly in her duet with the king. Wallis Giunta was suitably toxic as Second Harlot, oozing spite when the judgment of Solomon doesn’t go her way, then casting aside her harlot’s weeds for a gorgeous gown for her reappearance as the Queen of Sheba in sumptuous voice for ‘Will the sun forget to streak’.
The three of them reminded you how Handel’s flexible and expressive recitative and arioso explains everything about their characters. They had strong support from Ashley Riches’s sonorous Levite and from Benjamin Hulett’s elegantly sung Zadok, the king’s right-hand man.