Gounod (La) Reine de Saba

Some fine arias within a flawed opera

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Gounod (La) Reine de Saba

  • (La) Reine de Saba

This is said to be a first recording‚ which in one way is not surprising. The opera had no great success at its première in 1862 and has spent most of the interim ‘resting’ (as they say in the profession). Even in France it appears not to have been heard between 1900 and a revival at Toulouse in the centenary year. What does seem rather odd is that in all this time certain numbers in the opera have become and remained well­known‚ so that one might have thought that curiosity‚ if nothing more‚ would have brought it out of storage for once in a while.
The Queen’s big aria‚ ‘Plus grand dans son obscurité’‚ and Solomon’s ‘Sous les pieds d’une femme’ (better known in English under its more decorous title ‘She alone charmeth my sadness’) are fine expansive specimens‚ as is the grand tenor solo ‘Faiblesse de la râce humaine’. This has a special place in the affection of record collectors: Caruso recorded it in 1916‚ and presumably because the recording people couldn’t catch the words of the aria (‘Inspirez­moi’) they found the English translation‚ ‘Lend me your aid’‚ and applied their best high­school French so that for decades the record was sold as ‘Prête­moi ton aide’. It must be one of the world’s best tunes‚ yet it still didn’t rescue the work as a whole from its long­lasting oblivion.
The opportunity to hear it now is certainly welcome even though it is unlikely to stimulate a revaluation and a flurry of new productions. Several of the individual numbers‚ including those three‚ are attractive and sometimes endowed with the gift for emotional enrichment that confers a special distinction on Gounod’s melodic flair and thorough musicianship. But the score has a way of disappointing at key moments‚ so that the drama and its characters fail to find the musical expression which could have given the opera life. It also suffers from the demands of the Paris Opéra for a ballet in Act 4 at the very point where there seems to have been a chance to concentrate dramatic tension.
The live recording has its drawbacks too. As the singers move round on stage their voices have varying access to the microphone. This affects the balance as well as the matter of relative justice to the singers. Of these‚ the mezzo Francesca Scaini impresses most. The voice of Queen Balkis must have both warmth and majesty – ideally a Jessye Norman voice – and there is enough of these qualities to bring that comparison to mind. The tenor‚ Jeon­Won Lee‚ sounds rather different from one scene to another‚ but it is he who wins the most enthusiastic applause from the audience. Luca Grassi is a Solomon described in the cast­list as baritone whereas the part is properly one for the basse chantante: certainly this singer is most effective in the upper register. The Bénoni is a wobbler. The chorus from Bratislava is not well recorded‚ and‚ as heard here‚ the orchestra needs to recruit some good violinists.
The state of the score may also need clarification. For instance‚ it is startling to read in a footnote to the relevant chapter in Steven Huebner’s The Operas of Charles Gounod (Oxford: 1990) that the present score’s placing of Adoniram’s famous solo at the start of Act 2 is an emendation post­1888 and that ‘there is no evidence to suggest that this variant‚ as well as other changes…were sanctioned by the composer’.

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