Charles Gounod: La Reine de Saba
Kara Shay Thomson (Balkis), Dominick Chenes (Adoniram), Kevin Thompson (King Soliman), Michelle Trainor (Bénoni), Matthew DiBattista (Amrou), David Kravitz (Phanor), David Salsbery Fry (Méthousaël/Sadoc), Katherine Maysek (Sarahil), Odyssey Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Dr. William Cutter (chorus master), Gil Rose (conductor)
Live recording: Jordan Hall, Boston, Massachusetts (September 22, 2018) – 163’29
Odyssey Opera 1004 – Booklet in English – Libretto in French and English
While preparations were being made in France to record the original 1859 version of Faust, under the baton of Christophe Rousset in 2018, the other side of the Atlantic found Gil Rose busily preparing for the one-night only concert-version of Charles Gounod’s seldom-heard grand opéra, La Reine de Saba. These two operas hold an important thread: restoration of the original version since both of these operas received numerous cuts or reordering of numbers up to their premiere. Gil Rose, Odyssey Opera’s Artistic and General Director, is passionate about his “mission”: “...to present undiscovered operatic masterpieces in a version that most closely resembles the composer’s intentions.” Thus began his illimitable search to uncover Gounod’s master plan and its best intentions destined for the opening on February 28, 1862. M. Rose’s relentless search took him to France and Italy to uncover “pieces of the puzzle”. The end result was the unveiling of a fully-finished opera in five acts, including nearly a quarter of an hour’s worth of ballet. What has transpired is a marvelous miracle...an opportunity to experience the endless melodic passages so idyllically identified with Gounod and French opera.
A lavish articulation, La Reine de Saba is, essentially, a formulaic love triangle. Balkis’ (The Queen of Sheba) character calls for a chanteuse falcon, a uniquely shaped voice found in French opera. Having witnessed her powerful Tosca in 2013, this reviewer found Kara Shay Thomson well-qualified to sing the demands of the eponymous character. Slightly deeper in hue than Jennifer Holloway’s found in Le Tribut de Zamora, Mlle Thomson’s solidly understated pearly register is unshakably grounded and flush with royal richness. Her opening aria, “Plus grand dans son obscurité”, well-demonstrates her ability to fluctuate between stints of a lyrical and dramatic mezzo-soprano.
Vibrantly touching with a carriage of exhilarant flair can describe the fort ténor, Dominick Chenes. The young man is superbly gloved within Gounod’s lyrical lines. Destined for imminent demise as Adoniram, his voice range and occasionally platinum timbre closely parallel Lithuanian Edgaras Montvidas who has frequently lent his voice to works by Saint-Saëns, Godard and David.
Michelle Trainor adds another interesting dimension to Jordan Hall with her courageous and ebullient verve as the plucky Bénoni, the apprentice to architect Adoniram. Smoky and deep with a penetrating crisp trim, one is reminded of Gounod’s Stéphano with a tone strongly reminiscent of Georgian soprano, Nino Machaidze.
Worthy of mention, Odyssey Opera Orchestra’s brass annunciations are ravishing, especially when ushering in Act II (“Gloire à toi, divine princesse”). Dr. William Cutter underscores the importance of choral might of the group numbers, and they fail to disappoint...exhilarating! Act III’s opening, the wash-house of Siloé, entrées a delightful blend of female voices with orchestral embellishments that clearly anticipate Gounod’s 1864 Mireille.
Charles Gounod was extremely clever when picking out the three different voices and professions for the evil trio of Amrou, Phanor and Méthousaël: Amrou the carpenter (tenor - Matthew DiBattista), Phanor the bricklayer (baritone – David Kravitz) and Méthousaël the metal worker (bass – David Salsbery Fry). The mix is nicely managed without excessive fanfare. Gounod created a “march to revenge” during the close of Act I, and in this case, the chivalric lines turn the page to Cinq-Mars (1877) and even the “Mate’s Duet” from Don Carlo.
Much of the music in Acts IV and V centers around King Soliman. Kevin Thompson’s première basse de grand opéra is intoxicating and beguiling. Ironically enough, M. Thompson sang the role of Le Grand Inquisiteur on the same date as this performance, five years earlier in Cincinnati in a complete 1867 French version of Don Carlos. The tessitura smoothly matches Soliman’s notes, the timbre soothes and enchants and, simultaneously, helps convey a caring though virile man with an itchy edge...one whose boundaries shouldn’t be crossed. Few arias are slated for the bass line; therefore, greater importance is directed upon M. Thompson’s rendition of his “Sous les pieds d’une femme” which stuns. How striking it is when this gentleman concludes the passage on a low E and holds the note for over 16 seconds. Phenomenal!
The magic of this entire production couldn’t culminate such grandeur without Gil Rose’s persistent and passionate endeavors. Sound-wise, this recording has it all...uncompromising quality and unyielding meticulousness.
Clearly, it would have been an experience of a lifetime to be present at this staging. But to expect La Reine de Saba to be picked up by any of the major operatic venues in The United States is likely wishful thinking. At least we have the ability to, once again, preserve another long lost gem in Charles Gounod’s anthology.
A glorious touch with elegance and sophistication.
Odyssey Opera Website