Review: PROM 43 – HANDEL'S SOLOMON, Royal Albert Hall

Iestyn Davies leads the cast, with Sofi Jeannin conducting

By: Aug. 23, 2022
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Review: PROM 43 – HANDEL'S SOLOMON, Royal Albert Hall

Review: PROM 43 – HANDEL'S SOLOMON, Royal Albert Hall Enjoying success early in his career by composing Italian operas, towards the middle of the 18th century George Frideric Handel instead turned his attention to English oratorios. One of his more well-known works, Solomon, was recently performed as part of the 2022 BBC Proms - Sofi Jeannin conducted specialist orchestra The English Concert, with Lestyn Davies, Anna Dennis, Wallis Giunta, Benjamin Hulett, and Ashley Riches in solo roles. This performance continues the Proms' sequence of Handel oratorios.

Rather than being one continuous narrative, this oratorio focuses on three separate episodes in the life and reign of King Solomon. Act one focuses on his accomplishments as a ruler (particularly with regard to the Temple of Jerusalem) and his relationship with the Queen, act two sees Solomon resolve a bitter dispute between two sisters, and act three welcomes the Queen of Sheba to court, with masques and revels befitting a visitor of her status.

The titular role was originally performed by an alto, however in this instance a switch has been made to a male countertenor voice, which is roughly equivalent to the female style. It's interesting that Handel made this choice, as you would anticipate the role of a wise king (written in the 1740s) to be overtly masculine in tone to assert himself over the piece; perhaps Handel's decision was a reflection of Solomon's youth, or he simply found that this vocal range worked better with what he had in mind.

Whatever the reason, it gives singers like Lestyn Davies a terrific opportunity to show off their talents. Davies' voice is utterly sublime, somehow catching you unawares every time and making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end - it also brings back memories of his performance in Farinelli and the King. Mellifluous harmonies abound as he joins forces with soprano Anna Dennis and mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta; pure opulence for the ears.

The compositions may not transport you to Solomon's time, however they do capture a recognisably 18th century sound that will be familiar to anyone interested in the Georgian and Regency period. The harpsichord plays a major role in this, and it feels very much at home in the surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall.

Aside from the array of superb vocal performances, a real highlight of the oratorio is "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" - not just for the free-flowing strings, but also for the two oboes making an appearance.

Once again, I question the choice to just print the text in the programmes, which have to be purchased. The Proms should really be thinking about accessibility, wherever possible, and in events such as this surtitles should be employed as the bare minimum. There is a large LED screen situated on the stage area, behind the orchestra and chorus, whose only job at the present is to change to slightly different colours when different pieces are being performed. Could this not be repurposed for captioning?

The English National Opera, for example, do this as standard. It would allow every audience member to follow what is being said, regardless of their level of hearing and without having to buy a programme then keep looking up and down at the pages all evening. After all, the Proms themselves were founded to try and widen audiences as much as possible - hence the cheap standing tickets - so it's about time they moved into the 21st century and catered for accessibility needs as well as financial status.

That's to take nothing away from the performance itself, which set a high bar for the remainder of this year's concerts. Oratorios are ideal choices for a series such as this, as they are designed to be presented in concert form - rather than the more theatrical bent of opera. Choosing to perform one which focuses on a wise and rational ruler is also refreshing, given the various incompetent and dishonest leaders on offer in 2022; it's enough to make you wish for the world presented by Handel, rather than the one in which we currently live.

The Proms are at the Royal Albert Hall until 10 September

Photo Credit: Patrick Allen Operaomnia