Odyssey Opera opened its season with a concert performance of Gounod’s five-act grand opéra, La reine de Saba in its American première. Given the intrepid efforts of Artistic and General Director, Gil Rose, which sent him spelunking for music in France and Italy, this could be more accurately billed as the world première of the score as Gounod originally conceived it. Act 2 with its scenic highlight, the explosion of a blast furnace, was deleted entirely before the first performance in 1862. Act 3’s closing septet and a duet for the two lovers in Act 4 eventually disappeared as well. After 15 performances, the opera was withdrawn.

Kevin Thompson, Kara Shay Thompson and Dominick Chenes © Keira Cronin
Kevin Thompson, Kara Shay Thompson and Dominick Chenes
© Keira Cronin

Following revisions to the libretto – universally panned by the critics and found baffling by the audience for its reliance via Nerval’s Voyage en Orient on apocrypha, the Koran, and Middle Eastern folklore instead of the Bible – the new version, with Act 2 restored, held the stage at Belgium’s Théâtre de Monnaie for a decade before vanishing. Somewhere along the line, the tenor’s invocation to his metalsmith forebear, Tubalcain, “Inspirez-moi race divine”, migrated from the opening of Act 1, where Gounod’s brief prelude prefigured its main theme, to the opening of Act 2 where that thematic material recurs (one of several recurring motifs which prompted contemporary French critics to accuse Gounod of “Wagnerism”). Until a revival in the 70s, the opera only endured through recordings of individual arias and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s lifting the chords introducing the recitative to “Inspirez-moi” for Bunthorne’s “Am I alone?” in Patience.

Saturday’s performance proved the worth of Gounod’s score with its colorful and inventive orchestration (his use of the brass in unusual combinations and contexts being the most immediately notable) and melodic riches, however it also demonstrated how reliant on the visual the grand opéra genre was. Levantine exoticism was the province of the scenery, props and costumes, not the score, whose ballet even ends in a swirling, anachronistic waltz. Complex scenic action was merely underscored, not musically expressed. Nor can Gounod’s invention compensate for a libretto largely a series of tableaux, unmoored by an overall lack of dramatic tension or interest despite all the mystical, Masonic mumbo-jumbo attached to Adoniram and the race of Tubalcain. Moreover, its main characters are reduced to stock, love-triangle figures, Solomon suffering the most, stripped of both his wisdom and arcane powers and left a jealous lover and insecure ruler.

The husband-and-wife team of Louis Guéymard and Pauline Guéymard-Lauters created the roles of the lovers Adoniram, the architect of Solomon’s temple, and Balkis, Queen of Sheba. The former created the role of Henri in Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes; the latter was that unique vocal hybrid, a Falcon, and the first Eboli, both giving a clear idea of the vocal resources Gounod required. Dominick Chenes faced the challenge of “Inspirez-moi” at the top of Act 1 with the brilliant metal of a tenor voice both secure and flexible. Initially marred by a grainy texture and occasional bleat, the voice became more responsive as it quickly warmed, allowing later for a frequent, sensitive use of mezza voce. Perfectly audible from the orchestra, Chenes resulted covered at times to those in the balcony seats. A stolid demeanor was the only drawback. Kara Shay Thompson’s soprano combines a plush lower register with a strong top retaining some of the velvet of the lower notes. Excellent breath control allowed her to manage the long, lyrical lines and occasional leaps of Balkis’ arias with ease and expressivity, Act 3’s “Plus grand dans son obscurité” an outstanding exemplar.

The basse chantante Gounod had in mind for Solomon is light years away from the innate qualities of Kevin Thompson’s dark, cavernous voice. However, he was eventually able to temper its natural weight and sepulchral timbre to suit the dramatic requirements of this conflicted, and ultimately moving king. Michelle Trainor in the pants role of Bénoni, Adoniram’s young apprentice, sang “Comme le naissant aurore” describing the Queen’s beauty with youthful enthusiasm. The three self-important workers whose envy and dissatisfaction trigger the libretto’s only plot complications recall Meyerbeer’s Anabaptists in the way they are deployed in the opera. Matthew DiBattista, David Kravitz, and David Salsbery Fry were an appropriately oily and fanatical, dark vocal trio.

The opera closes with the apotheosis of Adoniram as the heavens open to reveal the “Sons of Fire”, the tribe of Tubalcain, arrayed to receive their brother. A chorus praising Solomon in Act 1 transforms into hosannas for the slain architect. Hosannas too for Rose, his virtuoso orchestra and chorus, and strong cast for this labor of love. Performed with such conviction, it should be preserved and available for all to hear.

*****