Saturday evening at Jordan Hall, Odyssey Opera continued its tradition of a season-opening grand opera in concert, presenting the US premiere of Charles Gounod’s “La reine de Saba,” (The Queen of Sheba). The one-night-only event was already notable for the sheer amount of searching and researching that was necessary to bring the opera to the stage. But this queen earned her coronet via stellar performances by soloists familiar and new, as well as the Odyssey Opera orchestra and chorus under the baton of artistic and general director Gil Rose.
It’s not the easiest opera to sell. It flopped at its premiere in 1862 and, according to the program notes, it met with disapproval by Napoleon III. In 1891, the writer Marie Anne de Bovet put forth that the opera was “dull, it lacks character or relief, and is deficient in the warmth and life which are requisite for attraction” — and this was in “Charles Gounod: His Life and His Works,” which in other sections practically reads like a hagiography.
Bovet’s comment may have been a bit harsh, but on its own nowadays, the opera is an antique curiosity, lacking the hummable airs of “Roméo et Juliette” or the dangerous intrigue of “Faust,” and its thin plot readily shows its age. A quick synopsis: the primary arc is the classic love triangle between a soprano, Queen Balkis of Sheba; a bass, King Solomon; and a tenor, Adoniram, the King’s chief architect. The latter is first indifferent to the queen’s presence in Jerusalem, but is then attracted to her on sight. In a plot twist worthy of Wagner, or at least “Game of Thrones,” the two are blood relatives through a divine ancestor. (The phrase “My wife, my sister” will never not induce cringes.)
The secondary arc concerns a trio of Adoniram’s disgruntled subordinate workers, sung with irate sonority on Saturday by Matthew DiBattista, David Kravitz, and David Salsbery Fry. In Act I, they request a raise based on their (supposed) years of service. Spoiler alert: they don’t get it, and they enact slightly disproportionate retribution by sabotaging Adoniram’s masterwork, then betraying his affair with Balkis to King Solomon, and at last, killing him.
As the audience, we’re supposed to believe that everyone in the kingdom loves Adoniram except these three guys, but Odyssey newcomer Dominick Chenes made that a difficult task with his take on the character. His steely tenor voice was in fine form, but understated in key moments of zeal, and his expression seemed static no matter the character’s mood, be that annoyance, ardor, or the throes of death. Singing the role of Adoniram’s apprentice Benoni, mezzo-soprano Michelle Trainor swooned through her Act I aria with melodious rapture.
The other two leads were wonderful, and their performances elevated the evening beyond a historical museum-piece. In her company debut, soprano Kara Shay Thomson made for a wonderfully elegant Balkis. As King Solomon, bass Kevin Thompson imbued his regal, clear phrases with the weight of duty, and his lowest register was incredibly mellifluous. The soprano’s supposed to end up with the tenor, but in this case, I was rooting for the bass.
For its part, the Odyssey Opera orchestra had plenty of shining moments: a triumphal march early on, and a lively ballet in Act IV that was no less engaging for the lack of dancers onstage. The same was true of the chorus, which made the most of the grand opera’s splendid crowd scenes.
At Jordan Hall, Saturday evening.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.