BWW Review: SOLOMON, Royal Opera House
It's the sensory overload that gets you: the tiers of seats rising up like a wedding cake; the almost atavistic sound of ancient materials (wood, skin and metal) making music; the certainty of religious conviction. If, and that if is important, you make the accommodations required for Handel's Solomon, you do get the reward.
The oratorio was first heard in 1749, pretty much exactly where we are sitting and, given the instruments and voices rising alone or collectively (without amplification), I'd venture that it sounded pretty much like this back then. And that is quite something really, the link to the past seldom as strong, nor as multi-faceted. That culture (well, some culture) endures is a comforting thought in times such as these - more of that later.
Solomon is, of course, based on the Old Testament stories, so we get the succession to the throne and the adulation of his people, the wisdom and the temple-building and the visit of the Queen of Sheba. The words, and the poetry is both lyrical and deeply moving, scrolls across in surtitles (for those who need them), but the arc of the narrative is somehow embedded in our psyches - these are things we know.
For anyone brought up on musicals or operas, it can feel a little slow - phrases are repeated, often for minutes at a time and the plot develops at its own pace. But that's because it's less about the page-turning thrust of the tales (there's the Bible for that) and more about the music and the voices.
The music picks you up and rolls you around, like a sea that's buoyant, a little unpredictable, but never quite going to pull you under. It envelopes and embraces - conductor Christian Curnyn taking the well-earned applause on behalf of his orchestra at the curtain.
The Royal Opera Chorus provide the backdrop and that thrill of some many voices rising as one in harmonies and then again, weaving in and out of synch, in praise of God (there's a lot of that).
The soloists step forward and sing their parts, sometimes toppling over into a little acting, but primarily allowing their voices to throw the emotion all round the house - unamplified of course.
Soprano and mezzo-soprano, Sophie Bevan and Susan Bickley, play two queens and two harlots, while tenor and baritone, Ed Lyon and Richard Burkhard, give us Zadok (yes, the priest) and a Levite. They sound wonderful, the singing never forced, the voices simultaneous powerful yet fragile, as ever giving me the impression of being on the edge of human capacity for sound creation. It's a thrill all right.
Then there is Lawrence Zazzo. Nothing quite prepares you for the sound of a countertenor - a man singing in the range of a mezzo-soprano or soprano. While you get the top end, there's also a depth, a richness to the voice that gives it an otherworldly quality - surely men from Mars would sing like this! It's perfect for the role of Solomon whose wisdom marks him as above his people, but whose personal sense of regality rests on their support.
Is any of it relevant today or is it just posh people enjoying as elite an art form as anyone might find? Well the smallest investment of time on any computer will bring forth limitless examples of such classical singing, and I'd suggest starting with it as background music for the daily chores and then growing into a more considered appreciation. It's not that hard to acquire the taste.
And its relevance? Solomon's wisdom, empathy and humanity in discerning the real mother from the false claimant is beautifully rendered in words and music. It's exemplary leadership that does not just provide justice in the case at hand, but underlines the judgement that underpins his rule, standing on the shoulders of his people's support, a philosopher king at the peak of his charismatic powers, dignified and loved.
When I returned home, I watched Kanye West flatter a grinning President Trump as, a couple of hours flying time away, Trump's people searched amongst the devastation of a hurricane for survivors, for clean water, for food.
Is it relevant today? You tell me.
Photo credit Chansonette