Handel wrote an astonishing nineteen works for the Covent Garden Theatre (twenty, if you count Oreste which lacked original music), including some of his greatest masterpieces such as Ariodante, Semele and Jephtha. Solomon was first given there in 1749, so in a way this was a ‘coming home’ of one of the composer’s finest works. The Royal Opera House only rarely presents Handel these days, so it was wonderful to see this Solomon, strongly cast and in the hands of one of today’s most dedicated conductors of eighteenth century music.
The presentation was concert style, with black-clad chorus massed in front of the giant-tarnhelm backdrop of the current Ring cycle, with the sense of all-pervading light appropriately paramount, from the ornate chandelier which dominated the stage to the softly illuminated house lights. The soloists were score-bound yet able to make strong contact with the audience as only truly experienced Handelians can. Lawrence Zazzo, with his air of grandeur and confidence, was a Solomon with more gravitas in stage presence than in voice; he’s husbanding his resources carefully these days. His sense of drama never falters however, and he gave an especially vivid performance of ‘What though I trace each herb and flower.’
Sophie Bevan has come a very long way in a short time, and justifiably so – with her youthful ardour as Solomon’s bride and her dignified yet heartfelt voicing of the mother’s love, this was a notable performance. Susan Bickley sang with eloquence as the Queen of Sheba, and gave a blistering account of the would-be second mother’s music.
Ed Lyon’s voice seems to have acquired a somewhat harder edge to it than when it was used with such sweetness in his 2011 recording of Alexander’s Feast, and some of his more ornate passages were not quite as fluid as one might expect from him. Nevertheless he was an impressive Zadok, making dramatic and musical sense of what can often be a rather dry role. Richard Burkhard was a solid, stentorian Levite.
The Royal Opera Chorus was tasked with Handel’s elaborate double-choir music, and what a fine job they made of it, whether enthusiastically supporting Solomon’s judgment in ‘Swell the full chorus to Solomon’s praise’ or sweetly evoking an aura of seclusion in ‘May no rash intruder disturb their soft hours.’
The Orchestra of the Early Opera Company began rather tentatively, the Overture often feeling as though it needed a bit more fire, but as the evening progressed the players revealed all the experience they have in Handel performance, directed with customary verve and passion by Christian Curnyn. The collaboration between the EOC and the ROH has proved to be a fruitful one – Orfeo and The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse, and L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, were all great successes. More, please – would it be too much to ask for Samson, Judas Maccabeus or, even better, Jephtha next time?