Auckland choir Viva Voce’s final offering for the year was a semi-staged performance of Handel’s late oratorio Solomon. An attempt to stage Solomon must deal with two important issues: firstly, not a lot dramatic happens to actually stage, and secondly, the three acts bear little dramatic relation to each other. Viva Voce’s semi-staging is probably as far as it could feasibly be staged, basically resembling a concert performance with a few stage props. These consisted of a throne for Solomon, a divan for his queen and a prop baby for the harlots to fight over. The characters moved in front of and behind the orchestra, and the Queen of Sheba made her entrance up the central aisle of the audience. Unfortunately there were significant cuts to the score, mostly affecting the Queen of Sheba, Zadok and the Levite, effectively relegating these roles to bit parts.

Viva Voce © Mark Rosser
Viva Voce
© Mark Rosser

A work as diffuse as Solomon relies upon a strong singer in its central role in order to maintain unity through its three diverse acts. Unfortunately, in Viva Voce’s performance we didn’t quite get the strong figure required. Sarah Castle was billed as the main attraction of this concert (I could find no information about who was singing the other roles until I got the programme) and while she has a pleasant voice she seemed somehow absent both musically and dramatically. Too often the voice refused to flow and her lower register was frequently covered by the orchestra, especially when she was behind them. Following the intermission, Castle came briefly to life with a deeply-felt “When the sun o’er yonder hills”, but in the ensuing ensemble for the harlots she was again completely overshadowed, just when Solomon must dominate the stage.

Solomon’s Queen was sung by Morag McDowell, a member of Viva Voce’s chorus. The coloratura demands of “Bless’d the day” were a little heavy-going, but she offered a finely phrased and pleasingly sung “With thee th’unshelter’d moor”. From her first entrance she acted very much a seductive figure, emphasizing the blessings of the nuptial bed as she reclined against the divan. An interesting interpretive choice, but it then seemed a little comical when Zadok stated he had never seen “so chaste a queen”.

The other soloists had less to do, though they all acquitted themselves very well indeed. Perhaps there were no world-class voices amongst them, but each had such a sure grasp of Handelian style that one would scarcely notice. Best of them was Emma Fraser as the Queen of Sheba, her clean, pure tone ideally suited to the great “Will the sun forget to streak” aria. A pity her “Ev’ry sight these eyes behold” was omitted. Andrew Grenon made quite an impact, fearlessly tackling the coloratura in “Sacred raptures” with his plangent, reedy tenor. The Levite, Kieran Rayner, had a most attractive oaken tone colour, particularly gorgeous in the higher register. Again, it was a shame that we got only his opening “Praise ye the Lord” and nothing else from him. Both Harlots impressed in their confrontation, with the Second Harlot demented enough to be suspicious of her even before Solomon’s judgement. Emma Roxburgh gave us a heart-rending “Can I see my infant gor’d”, draining her voice of emotion on the words “take him all” then lightening the mood delightfully for “Beneath the vine”.

Based on this performance, Viva Voce should be considered one of Auckland’s finest choirs. They exhibited great command of Handel’s polyphonic textures, sopranos soaring high above without a hint of strain. A strong bass section made sure that the lower lines were equally perceivable. For this reviewer, the musical highlight of Solomon is the exquisite chorus “May no rash intruder” concluding Act I. Here, Viva Voce struck just the right pastoral mood with their hushed, glowing tones. The contrasting choral movements in Act III were a perfect way for Viva Voce to show off their command of varying moods; sweet in “Music, spread thy voice around”, thundering and bellicose in “Now a diff’rent measure try” and aptly solemn and despairing in “Draw the tear from hopeless love”.

The orchestra played extremely well under the direction of John Rosser. Particuarly noteworthy was the beautiful flute and string interplay during the “May no rash intruder” chorus mentioned earlier. One could hear the nightingale twittering about amongst light breezes and the effect was delightful. The famous “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” set off at quite a brisk speed, with plenty of opportunity for the woodwind to show off their virtuosity. The tempi chosen were on the quick side overall; never dragging but always giving the music room to breathe. All in all, this was a very good performance from the choir, orchestra and majority of the soloists, let down only by the disfiguring cuts and a curiously withdrawn performance from the title character.