The Opera Quarterly 19.3 (2003) 580-583
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La reine de Saba. Charles Gounod
|Queen Balkis: Francesca Scaini||Sadoc: Volodymyr Deyneka|
|Adoniram: Jeon-Won Lee||Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia|
|Bénoni: Anna Lucia Alessio||Bratislava Chamber Choir|
|Sarahil: Annalisa Carbonara||Manlio Benzi, conductor|
|King Solomon: Luca Grassi||Live, Festival della Valle d'Itria, Martina|
|Amrou: Salvatore Cordella||Franca, July 2001|
|Phanor: Jean Vendassi||Dynamic (distributed by Qualiton Imports)|
|Méthousaël: Pietro Naviglio||cds 387/1-2 (2 CDs)|
Let's get one fact out on the table right up front: this opera was a failure at its premiere in Paris in 1862. It did enjoy a couple of moderately successful runs at the Monnaie in Brussels, but it failed at the Crystal Palace in London (tricked out as Irène and reset in Turkey) and remained a failure in its homeland, disappearing almost completely after an unsuccessful 1900 Paris revival. It was not supposed to be thus.
Gounod's reputation was very high by the mid-1850s. Empress Eugénie invited him to visit the court at Compiègne and proposed collaborating on the composition of a ballet. A series of successes for him at the Théâtre Lyrique and Opéra-Comique led to the offer of a libretto on Ivan the Terrible. Much of the opera had been composed when the same attempt on Napoleon III's life in 1858 that briefly derailed Verdi's Un ballo in maschera dictated the abandonment of an opera featuring a plot to assassinate the tsar. 1 Gounod salvaged what he could of the score for Faust, Mireille, and the project intended by Alphonse Royer to bring the composer in triumph at last to the Opéra: La reine de Saba, based on Le voyage en Orient by Gérard de Nerval.
Nerval's book, a seminal work of French literature on the Near East, was adapted for the stage by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, Gounod's most frequent librettists. It is there that the trouble began. The Palace signaled disapproval of subject matter featuring a workers' revolt and an artist clearly shown [End Page 580] as superior in talent and sexual allure to a monarch. More damagingly, the libretto turned out to have serious thematic and structural problems that the critics pounced on mercilessly. Gounod's music fared little better, accused of "Wagnerism" (a stick that would be used to beat French composers for decades) and of resembling a prisoner being drawn and quartered by critic Bénédict Jouvin, in language eerily prescient of Hanslick's memorable disparagement of the Tristan prelude in 1865. Gounod was deeply embittered by the opera's failure. Production problems had scrubbed La reine's great coup de théâtre, the casting of a gigantic bronze sculpture on stage at the end of act 2, surely planned to trump the casting of the Perseus statue in Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini and create a sensation. The opera seemed to him unfairly truncated by circumstance, and he maintained that its music, if premiered under the name Meyerbeer, would have been warmly received. Revisions to the score for its second season at the Opéra cut no ice with public or critics.
As heard in this new Dynamic recording, which claims completeness but for some numbers in the ballet, La reine turns out to have many felicities. The [End Page 581] libretto, on the other hand, remains a serious problem. The story of the encounter between the author of the Song of Songs and the exotic queen from the land of frankincense should have been a natural for French grand opera. Unfortunately, Solomon is an ineptly drawn character. Aloof and only briefly present in acts 1 and 2, he is absent completely from acts 3 and 5. It is only in act 4 that he suddenly emerges as a major character requiring a first-class voice ("première basse de grand opéra"). By then it is too late to demonstrate credibly his love for the queen, if love it be, given his previous fixation on (and affection for...