Bernard Labadie courageously decided to present Handel’s imposing 1748 dramatic oratorio Solomon complete at Montréal’s Maison symphonique. Ever the pragmatic musician and impresario, Handel abandoned the financially ruinous Italian opera in 1741 and turned to the more politically correct and less costly dramatic oratorio. Solomon’s dramatically diffuse libretto recounts three biblical episodes in the life of King Solomon, all of which demonstrate his legendary wisdom and sense of justice. Act I deals with Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter, the second act with the judgement of two women and a disputed baby and the final act tells of the visit of the Queen of Sheba.

Over a dozen of Solomon’s sixty-three numbers feature the chorus and Labadie’s Capelle de Québec rose to every musical and vocal challenge with comprehensive skill. Their collective sonority was as warmly homogeneous as their musicality was stylistically irreproachable. What they lacked was a certain verbal clarity, commitment and dramatic involvement. If the opening Act II chorus “From the censer” was tame and proper to the point of genteel correctness, they rose to sustained heights of intensity in all of their Act III contributions and especially in “Draw the tear from hopeless love” where Labadie himself was at his most committed; indeed, the chorus reflected his level of implication. In both opening acts, Labadie too often remained outside the emotional core and inner drama of the work, resulting in a certain uniformity of mood. If Labadie had difficulty in establishing a convincing and contrasting framework for his interpretation early on, everything seemed to come into focus in the majestic third act, where he no longer appeared aloof of dramatic progression or expressive context.

The performance’s bedrock and its principal glory was the orchestra. The Violons du Roy once again proved themselves to be Canada’s most accomplished and versatile chamber orchestra. Their playing had a spontaneity, a rhythmic drive, technical assurance and musical implication that was both bewildering and bewitching. Labadie was also fortunate in his choice of soloists, who did him and the oratorio proud. His cast, entirely Canadian with one exception, was not only world class, but amply demonstrated that Canada continues to produce vocal artists of the highest order. As Zadok, James Gilchrist brought a typically English trained lyric tenor to the role. His strong dramatic commitment and presence, as well as exemplary diction, made the recitatives vibrant, but his tendency to produce a constricted, throaty tone (especially in coloratura passages of which there are many) made the arias something of a trial.

Two world-renowned singers from Québec returned home and amply demonstrated why they have climbed to the highest spheres of world music. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, as Solomon, provided a performance of vocal and musical distinction, but what was revelatory was her dramatic range and level of characterization. From her opening accompanied recitative “Almighty Power”, Lemieux provided a dazzling vocal display of unequivocal beauty. Armed with a limpid legato, intuitive musicality, expertly shaped and shaded phrasing and an awe-inspiring palette of expressive colours, she was almost operatic in her ability to sustain a character throughout the oratorio’s duration. Most impressive was her wondrous Act I aria, “Haste to the cedar grove” in which she plumbed every possible emotional level. However , she did show an occasional propensity to push the voice off the centre of the note thus widening the vibrato, all in an effort at increased expressivity.

Soprano Karina Gauvin was both the First Woman in Act II and the celebrated Queen of Sheba in Act III. Her performance had a vocal allure and class that often defied description. The voice has added warmth and the tone is now flowing dark chocolate rather than the pure milk chocolate it once was. She still possesses a seamless legato and has developed a range of distinctive dynamic colours. She perfectly caught the complex and emotionally sophisticated nature of the First Lady as easily as she revelled in the flowing vocalism of the Queen of Sheba’s glowing aria “Will the sun forget to streak” in which the perfection and eloquence of her cantabile singing was matched by the obbligato provided by oboe and two flutes.

Despite certain vocal reservations, there were also strong contributions from Shannon Mercer as Solomon’s Queen in Act I and Krisztina Szabó as the Second Lady in Act II. The final vocal piece in the puzzle and perhaps the most viscerally impressive was bass-baritone Philippe Sly in the secondary role of the Levite. His three interventions displayed a level of vocal charisma, musical and stylistic accomplishment and assurance rarely (if ever) encountered in one so young. This virtuoso performance promises much. Sly, like all his colleagues, was justly raised to roof at the conclusion of the evening’s memorable music making.