Odyssey Opera Queen of Sheba

REVIEW: The Queen of Sheba

by Gregory Moomjy

As an opera lover, having to explain that The Phantom of the Opera is technically not an opera is a dirty part of the job. What’s worse is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score contains several blatantly obvious allusions to Puccini. However, even though Phantomcontinues to vex opera lovers, it can also teach us some music history. One just has to know where to look.

In the first scene–immediately following the overture–the audience finds themselves sitting in on a rehearsal of “Hannibal,” a fake opera that is indeed based on that Hannibal (to clarify: the Carthaginian general who crossed the Alps with elephants to attack Rome, not the serial killer on TV). In fact, during this rehearsal, a giant elephant is wheeled on stage as the prima donna sings an aria glorifying the military prowess of elephants. What follows is a ballet of slave girls. 

When these two elements–spectacle and ballet–are combined the result, in a nutshell, is French Grand Opera. 

Today French Grand Opera is mainly known through Italian composers who were influenced by the genre, (Think of Aida or Don Carlos by Verdi). As a genre, it was predicated on big crowd scenes with plenty of special effects–such as an exploding volcano or heretics being boiled alive. This is perhaps one of the reasons why French Grand Opera has lost its popularity today. It is simply too expensive to produce and is now rarely staged. 

For those opera fans looking for something new, Odyssey Opera has just released a recording of Gounod’s La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba). To put it bluntly, the history of opera would not be what it is had Gounod not written Faust (1859)It was the work that opened the Met in 1883 and was performed there so often that critics dubbed The Met “the Faust-spiel haus.”, a cheeky nod to Bayreuth.

In recent popular culture, Faust was featured in Spielberg’s 2012 movie Lincoln with famed coloratura Mary Dunleavy playing Marguerite. However, besides FaustRoméo et Juliette (1867) and Mireille (1865), (the last of which is primarily known for its waltz aria), his operas are not well-known. This is unfortunate as not only was he a prolific opera composer, but he was also a winner of Prix de Rome. Among other accomplishments, Gounod penned the National Anthem of the Vatican, as well as Funeral March of a Marionette (1879)–perhaps better known as the theme song to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Let us not forget that he also set the “Ave Maria” to the first prelude of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. With such credits, he is certainly a composer worth getting to know better.

Odyssey Opera is the brainchild of conductor Gil Rose. Founded in 2013, the Boston based company is dedicated to rediscovering forgotten works so that they can reclaim their place in the standard repertoire. The company mainly does this through recordings. Typically, their seasons include 6 operas done both in concert and as fully staged productions. Recent performances include Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Henry VIII. The latter piece was popular in its day but fell out of favor in the early 20th century. Prior to which, it was severely cut. When Odyssey Opera performed it in 2019, the group gave the first performance of the complete version since its premiere.

This recording of The Queen of Sheba is the first complete recording of the full five-act score. It restores all of Act II, Act III’s closing septet, and a duet for the lovers in Act V. Written in 1862 and based on the popular novel by Gérard de Nerval’s Le voyage en OrientThe Queen of Sheba tells the story of the Queen’s relationship with King Solomon. 

Opera lovers who know their Operatic Biblical history will recognize that the Queen of Sheba, who here is named Balkis, had a relationship with King Solomon which was the foundation of the Solomonic Dynasty in Ethiopia.  However, Gounod’s opera introduces Solomon’s architect Adoniram; this creates the obligatory love triangle. Nowadays, operatic love triangles are something of a cliché; yet in French Grand Opera they served a purpose. Underneath the pomp and spectacle, French Grand Opera inserted fictitious relationships into actual times of political upheaval. This is the case with Auber’s La muette de Porticiwhich is set during an actual Sicilian revolt against Spain. However, the heart of the piece is the nonverbal sister of the leader of the revolt who is raped by the Spanish viceroy. The contrast between a personal relationship that occurs across a political divide highlights the tension between the personal and the political in a way which allowed French audiences to understand and explore the politics of their own day. 

That being said, unfortunately, this recording amounts to a valiant performance of an opera that is flawed. The work is a number opera. While many individual pieces are certainly compelling and worth the listen, the music which connects these individual arias and ensembles falls flat and feels like filler. This is by no means the fault of any of the performers, but perhaps speaks to the wisdom of those who have incorporated cuts throughout the piece’s history. In the pit, Gil Rose put a premium on lyricism, which not only made several individual arias a joy to listen to but also brought out the melodic richness that is a trademark of Gounod. As Balkis, the titular Queen, soprano Kara Shay Thomson showcased her smooth soprano but also brought a certain melancholy to the role. Of particular note was her heart wrenching cry at Adoniram‘s death. That cry is the climactic end to Balkis’s final aria.

Indeed, Balkis’s final aria is the apex of the role. It is difficult not only because the writing leaves the voice exposed, but also because it comes at the end of the role. Consequently, the singer needs to be in top vocal form throughout the whole evening. Here, Thompson did not disappoint.

As Adoniram, Dominick Chenes , showcased an appropriate mixture of strength, clarity, and lyricism. Kevin Thompson’s King Solomon is a very rich baritone in the tradition of the french national school. Now a days due to globalization, many European countries, perhaps with the exception of Russia and the former Soviet Union, have lost their distinctive national style of singing. Consequently, when a singer possesses the qualities of someone like Pol Plançon, it is a praiseworthy accomplishment, and something to celebrate.

There were also notable performances by the secondary characters. As Benoni, Michelle Trainor deployed her bright Mezzo to great effect. The part requires a lyric Mezzo that is not only capable of executing several ornaments but can also stay at the top of her range for large portions of the score. Trainor met these challenges with ease. 

Despite having individual numbers that are musically and dramatically compelling, the fact remains that 19th century opera fans were perhaps right when they decided The Queen of Sheba needed to at least have some cuts. That being said, I am happy there is a full recording of this work, because if not, how would we be able to judge the work on its own merit? We need to be able to hear the full breadth of these pieces to appraise them appropriately. This was a solid performance of a forgotten work and Odyssey Opera should be applauded for recording it. If nothing else, it gives a more in-depth picture of Gounod’s powers as a composer. Opera fans–especially those who are interested in esoteric works–should definitely give this a listen.

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