Solomon is an extraordinary piece. Written in 1748 at the height Handel's fame as an oratorio composer, it is one of the less-frequently performed Handel oratorios. The reason? It requires large forces: a large chorus, five soloists (covering eight named roles), and a large orchestra. It tells three stories from the life of the biblical King Solomon rather than just one.
It is not known for certain who wrote the libretto - it could have been a fellow named Newburgh Hamilton, with whom Handel had collaborated before - but regardless of who penned the words, it has more than a whiff of Augustan Age/George II triumphalism transposed onto the kingdom of Solomon: "til distant nations catch the song and glow with holy flame" and "from the East unto the West, who so wise as Solomon?"
But the three stories are given marvelous musical treatment. In Act I, Solomon (an alto or countertenor role; we will have a countertenor) and Zadok the High Priest celebrate the completion of the Temple. After completion of the Temple, how does Solomon celebrate? By consummating his marriage with Pharaoh's daughter; the latter half of Act I is remarkable in its "explicitness with which it hymns the joys of the marriage bed." Act II tells the famous story of Solomon's judgement in the case of the two women who both claim a baby as their own. There is memorably affecting music in this part. Act III describes the visit from the Queen of Sheba and her wonder at the magnificence of Solomon's empire. In contrast to the sensual celebration of Solomon's marriage to Pharaoh's daughter in Act I, a curtain is drawn around what might have happened with the Queen of Sheba after Act III. (According to the Bible, Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines.)
Also not depicted in Handel's Solomon are Solomon's subsequent descent into idolatry. No, in Handel's Solomon, the title character is powerful, wise, sexy, and in a way, humble. Thanks to some over-the-top poetry, the characterization can sometimes border on Gilbert and Sullivan. Case in point: the Queen of Sheba sings to Solomon "Thy harmony's divine, great king/All obey the artist's string/And now illustrious prince receive/Such tribute as my realm can give./Here purest gold from earth's dark entrails torn/And gems resplendent that outshine the morn." But some of the greatest encomiums are saved for Mother Nature and her many charms, including a lovely chorus at the end of Act I as Solomon and his new queen sleep off their marriage exertions: "May no rash intruder disturb their soft hours/To form fragrant pillows, arise O ye flowers!/Ye zephyrs soft breathing their slumbers prolong/While nightingales lull them to sleep with their song."
Handel's music, in its infinite variety, is vivid throughout.
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