Odyssey Opera's "Reine de Saba": Just Desserts?

Kara Shay Thomson as "Reine de Saba"
photo: Keira Cronin

Make mention of Reine de Saba to many people and they will no doubt have visions of sponge cake with chocolate and almonds (made famous by Julia Child) swirling in their heads. But it's also the name of a grand opera in five acts written in 1862 by Charles Gounod. In this, the the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, it was presented in concert form in Jordan Hall by Odyssey Opera, in its tradition of presenting works that are relatively unsung, esoteric and ambitious. This was no exception, as it in effect became not only the opera's U.S. premiere but also in a sense its world premiere of a sort, given the research and restoration this overlooked work required. For the first time, this reconstructed version, with three recovered excerpts, was available to be heard and enjoyed. With a libretto by Jules Bardier and Michel Carre, inspired by Gerard de Nerval's Voyage en Orient, the performance was part of a minor “GounOdyssey”, as Artistic and General Director Gil Rose notes in the program, since the company is also performing, on November 9 and 11 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, a fully staged version of the composer's Le Medecin malgre lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself). Given the rarity of Reine de Saba, a brief synopsis would be in order.

Dominick Chenes as Adoniram in "Reine de Saba"
(photo: Keira Cronin)

The architect and engineer Adoniram (Dominick Chenes) calls on his ancestors for assistance in creating his magnificent bronze bowl. Benoni (Michelle Trainor) announces the arrival of Balkis, Queen of Sheba (Kara Shay Thomson), who is betrothed to King Solomon (Kevin Thompson). Three of the architect's workers, Amrou (Matthew DiBattista), Phanor (David Kravitz) and Methousael (David Salsbery Fry) arrive to demand more money, but, being rejected, swear revenge. Subsequently Solomon and Balkis address their people, and he asks to meet the architect, though he's been described as an odd man with mysterious origins. Adoniram is stunned by Balkis' beauty, while she removes her necklace and puts it around his neck. The casting of the bronze bowl is stopped by Benoni, who warns it has been sabotaged by the three traitorous workers, and the furnace explodes. Balkis sings of the feelings aroused in her by Adoniram and of how she does not love Solomon, which leads to a duet between her and the architect. Benoni arrives to announce that spirits have restored the casting. Dancing girls announce the arrival of Solomon, and the three traitors reveal to him the meeting between his betrothed and the architect, yet he dismisses them and offers to share power with Adoniram, who declines and states he prefers to leave Jerusalem. Insulted, Solomon vows revenge and argues with Balkis about their wedding. Sarahil (Katherine Maysek) pours some potion into his cup and he falls asleep. Balkis removes Solomon's ring from his finger, fleeing to join Adoniram, but he has been set upon by the three traitors and lies dying. She gives him the ring and, with her slaves and courtiers, attends his death.

Kevin Thompson as King Solomon in "Reine de Saba"
(photo: Keira Cronin)

There were scenes (primarily those that supported the ballet segments) with lush resonance, but given Gounod's penchant for the bombastic, even those tended to build to a point where no barns were left unburned. One kept hearing undeniable references to his other works, notably Faust. At least there were no overt echoes of his more sentimental output, such as the inexplicably popular but mercilessly maudlin Ave Maria with its notoriously unabashed sentimentality. With the discovery of the previously lost segments and the restoration of the ballet accompaniments, it made for a very thorough presentation of the work, if a bit of a challenge, especially for the orchestra, at an uncompromisingly demanding three hours.

While the opera as a whole is relatively obscure, some of the music will be familiar to those who typically attend recitals of operatic arias. Most notable is the tenor aria Inspirez-moi race divine, which made demands on Chenes within nanoseconds of his appearance at the very beginning of the work, reminiscent of the challenge handed the tenor in Verdi's Celeste Aida. He handled the task quite readily, managing to be heard even in soto voce thanks in large part to the magnificent acoustics of the venue. Others include the impressive aria sung by Trainor about Balkis' beauty, comme la naissance aurore, the revenge aria by the three traitorous workers, Il nous repousse, and, near the end of the opera, Thomson's plaintive aria about her newfound love, plus grand dans son obscurite. Conductor Rose led the Odyssey Opera Orchestra with his usual keen ear for detail as well as nuance, and the Odyssey Opera Chorus under Chorus Master Dr. William Cutter once again added immeasurably to the force of the score. Sung in French with English supertitles, it was a revelation, though it must be noted that the placement of two relatively small screens weren't fully up to the task; on virtually every other measure, however, this eagerly awaited production didn't disappoint. The commanding voices of soprano Thomson, tenor Chenes and especially bass Thompson, as well as the animated delivery of local favorite Kravitz, made for some very memorable moments.
Kevin Thompson, Kara Shay Thomson & Dominick Chenes in "Reine de Saba"
(photo: Keira Cronin)
Overall, considering the infidelity and final fate of the star-crossed lovers, the evening was one of just desserts, and not merely of the culinary sort.

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