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Classical 101

The Return Of The Queen Of Sheba

A bronze bust of composer Charles Gounod by Antonin Mercié (1913), St Rémy de Provence, France.
Spencer Means
A bronze bust of composer Charles Gounod by Antonin Mercié (1913), St Rémy de Provence, France.

We meet the Queen of Sheba in the Old Testament. She’s pretty glamorous in scripture.

Handel nearly upstaged the bible with the music he gave this regal lady for her entrance in his oratorio Solomon. You have to love a work that has roles for the “First and Second Harlots.”

But even the First Book of Kings – and Handel – pale in comparison to the opulence of French composer Charles Gounod and his grand opera The Queen of Sheba.

La reine de Saba was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1862. Grand opera. It means big. Size counts. The characters in a grand opera are royalty, generals, chieftains and the operatic haute monde. Grand operas in 19th century Paris followed a formula: five acts, huge orchestra and chorus, and plenty of opportunities for the ladies of the ballet.

Ballet? In opera? You’d better believe it. The gentlemen of the Jockey Club – who paid all of the opera’s bills – demanded the opportunity to watch the pretty legs dancing on stage. (Appropriately enough the ballerinas and the Jockey Club brethren enjoyed many a dalliance, post performance.) But no joke, all of these operas in France had to have a ballet, the storyline be damned. Even Verdi had to comply.

Charles Gounod was not Giuseppe Verdi. He lacked that composer’s dramatic grandeur in his music. Verdi‘s music told you what his characters were thinking, even if they were singing something else. Gounod used music to illustrate place and movement. When he went loud he meant loud, and nothing else. What Gounod had was a gift for melody and a lot of dramatic flair. The Queen of Sheba was made for Gounod.

 Album cover for La reine de Saba

La reine de Saba has just been recorded by the Boston-based Odyssey Opera, conducted by Gil Rose. Mr. Rose has quite a discography with his Boston Modern Orchestra Project. All their recordings are impeccably played and have superb production values. There’s not a loser among them.

The recorded sound of this La reine de Saba, performed in Boston’s Jordan Hall, is warm, rich, and just “live” enough. The orchestral playing and choral singing keep both the sweetness of Gounod’s line and the slam-bang of large choral effects. Remember, we have a big orchestra, big chorus, lots of processional music, ballet, two lovesick leads, and a slightly dopey King Solomon (Soliman). There’s a trio of villains—they’re rather fun--and a travesti role for mezzo-soprano.

Generations ago, Regine Crespin and Nicolai Gedda would have sung this opera. Odyssey Opera presents soprano Kara Shay Thomson in the title role. (She lives in Dayton.) I was on the way to disliking her voice, finding her tentative and acid. Shut up. Her gleaming soprano quickly blossomed. She and tenor Dominick Chenes turn in some fine singing in the high voltage third act. The big aria “Plus grand de son obscurité” holds no fears for Ms. Thomson. Together with Mr. Chenes they go at it with passion and that extra bit of sweetness Gounod loved in the duet that follows. I played Act 3 three times in one sitting.

Kevin Thompson is great in the bass role of King Soliman. Soliman doesn’t have that much to do. I’m tempted to call Le reine de Saba a tenor’s opera. If Mr. Chenes lacks the heft of a Jon Vickers, he does have a very beautiful voice and wonderful line. I want to hear more of him.

La reine de Saba is more muscular than Gounod’s best-known opera, Faust. It has fewer pretty tunes but what there are mean more – they are better integrated into the action. The aforementioned Act 3 captures the ecstasy Gounod would use so well in his Romeo et Juliette in 1867.

No, the world wasn’t pining for a new recording of Gounod’s opera. But now we have one, from Gil Rose and Odyssey Opera. If you see his name on any recording with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and/or Odyssey Opera, buy it. You’ll hear music you’ve never heard before, in performances you will want to hear again.

Classical 101 Charles Gounod
Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.