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Handel, Solomon: Solomon, David Hansen (counter-tenor), Solomon's Queen, Malin Christensson (soprano), Queen of Sheba, Marie Arnet (soprano), First Harlot, Malin Christensson (soprano), Second Harlot, Marie Arnet, (soprano), Zadok, the High Priest, Jeremy Ovenden (tenor), A Levite, Henry Waddington (bass), Chorus of Priests, Chorus of Israelites, English Voices, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Rene Jacobs, Conductor, Barbican Hall, London, 7.4.2006 (GD)

Rene Jacobs has given us splendid performances (on CD, and in concert, mostly in Belgium and France) of Handel's Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo, and, most recently, Saul, all with Concert Koln. He is due to record Solomon soon, and lets hope that he goes onto record the great oratorios after Solomon, Susanna, Theodora and Jephtha. As with his splendid recording of Saul, Rene Jacobs again proved himself to be almost unsurpassed in expressing the dramatic range and sheer opulence of the orchestral and vocal textures of these late masterpieces.

Handel’s markings in the orchestral and vocal score are scrupulously meticulous, even by his standards. Jacobs brought out this opulence with great mastery. Handel's string section is in ten parts with six violas, four celli, and two double-basses. The large violin section (eight each of firsts and seconds) plays divisi throughout. There are markings such as 'concertini', 'senza ripieni', and in each of the twenty-two arias the string band plays in a different style, sometimes emphasizing a canonic sequence, at other times a cantabile style. The brass writing in the great ceremonial choruses is especially imposing, using both horns and trumpets, often antiphonally, to wonderful effect. Handel's woodwind section includes a serpent at the lowest register, to eerie effect. This performance reproduced as accurately as possible this whole patina of choral and orchestral colours, which is unique in Handel's output.

In the first 1749 London performance (later revised) Handel used a mezzo-soprano for the key role of Solomon; here, Jacobs used the counter-tenor of the young Australian David Hansen. Although Hansen sung quite accurately I felt that his voice lacked the vocal range Handel calls for, sounding strained at times. This was particularly the case in his third act duet with the Queen of Sheba (excellently sung by Marie Arnet). Carolyn Watkinson's mezzo Solomon (in the 1984 Eliot Gardiner recording) sounds far better here. Nevertheless, Solomon's long recitative dramatic sequence with the two Harlots, in the second act was delivered most effectively. And although for the most part the orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment responded excellently to Jacobs' demands there were times when they didn't quite match his excellent Concerto Koln. This was particularly noticeable in the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, which introduces the Third and final act, with the concertante woodwind interjections and overlapping phrases lacking a certain piquance and agility. But really these are mere quibbles in the light of a generally excellent performance.

The structure of Solomon is unique in his oratorios, presenting Solomon's reign not in narrative sequence, but in a series of detached sequences, almost approaching tableau-vivant. The first act depicts his august beneficence and wisdom as an absolute monarch, but also his devotion and love of his queen, the daughter of Pharaoh. This is not a marital love in any conjugal or romantic sense - Solomon was said to have at least 700 wives and 300 concubines. In this sense, Handel and his unknown librettist, reworking an assortment of Old Testament sources, are not depicting their characters in any naturalistic way, but more in the manner of ideal types. The second act depicts Solomon as a wise judge who intervenes personally in legal disputes. The famous dispute between the two Harlots (Le prostitutee) over rightful motherhood of a child is a magnificent piece of drama in its own right. Although Handel was writing an oratorio (which gave him much more scope than in conventional Italian/French opera) he never balks from inserting scenes of sheer operatic elan. Jacobs and the trio of the two Harlots and Solomon responded superbly here, as did the orchestra with all manner of dramatic recitatives approaching the later styles of Gluck and Mozart. The culminating third act depicts Solomon as wise in foreign diplomacy, a king who can impress and enchant no less a queen than the Queen of Sheba. To intensify Solomon entertaining the Queen of Sheba Handel uses a species of court masque (depicted here with the soprano's and mezzo entering in more elaborate dress codes, particularly telling with the Queen of Sheba) to inflect a sense of heightened allegorical idealism.

Soprano Malin Christensson proved to be a most auspicious replacement to the indisposed Lisa Milne. Her first act aria 'Bless'd the day when first my eyes', and the following duet with Solomon 'Welcome as the dawn of day', were in full accord with the noble sentiments expressed in the music and her tessitura demonstrated a diverse vocal range. And here Jacobs and the orchestra did not just accompany the various vocal lines but achieved a degree of involved dialogue quite rare in standard opera, let alone a baroque masterpiece as here. I was, throughout the performance, increasingly amazed at Handel's mastery as a dramatist achieving an intense dialectic of vocal narrative and an endlessly inventive (experimental) orchestral, instrumental mastery of characterization. In Zadok's first act aria ‘Sacred raptures cheer my breast', sensitively sung by tenor Jeremy Oveden, the subtle bassoon and string accompaniment (in a range of dynamic, tonal registers) were compellingly beautiful.

The third act, with the arrival of the Queen of Sheba, has a positively cumulative feel in relation to the works overall structure and sense of dramatic denouement. This is heightened by the Queen of Shebas's haunting aria 'Will the sun forget to streak' which denotes the Queens sadness as she begins to depart from Solomon's enlightened realm; here Handel compliments the elaborate antiphonal string writing with two flutes in unison (a baroque metaphor for sadness and grief) and a single oboe. This aria initiates the end of the fantastic masque to remind us of the difference between an idealized realm and the exigencies of reality.

It is tempting to speculate that Handel is here making an indirect reference to events in England at the time of the works composition. Although a long period of peace and prosperity was hoped for after the intercontinental wars and a series of rebellions at home, the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle proved not to be the absolute guarantor of long-term peace. Nevertheless, the oratorio ends on a note of optimistic resolve with the triumphant chorus 'The name of the wicked shall quickly be past' concluding in a flourish of chorus, trumpets, horns and drums. Jacobs restored this closing chorus as the one which Handel used in the 1749 premiere. Later performances replaced this chorus with the earlier act three monumental chorus, 'Praise the Lord'. But I am sure that with Jacobs there was no feeling of mea maxima culpa in choosing the original ending, which certainly suited baroque audiences who would have understood the moral of the pithy, witty final chorus Handel originally deployed.

All of the superb choruses, for which Solomon is rightly famous, were delivered (double part) with great precision and subtlety by the 'English Voices', from the graceful onomatopoeic murmurings of the 'Nightingale chorus’ at the end of act one, to the ceremonial majesty of 'From the censor curling rise', at the opening of act two, and 'Praise the Lord' of act three.

Overall, this was a rare and valuable experience. I left the hall with the feeling that this baroque masterpiece sounded as fresh and involving now as it did for later baroque audiences when the work was more fully understood. And its political message of the ideal of enlightened rule and social harmony is, if anything, more relevant today.

Geoff Diggines



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)