There are certain problems involved in writing a theatrical work about a monarch whose reign was noted for peace and wisdom -- King Solomon, for example, whose name means "peaceful." George Frideric Handel's impressive solution to these problems is embodied in the oratorio "Solomon," which compensates in opulence for what it may lack in suspense and dramatic tension. Its richness of texture and technical brilliance received full justice in a performance by the Oratorio Society of Washington last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Solomon did not fight battles like Judas Maccabaeus, and he did not have the tortured soul or spooky adventures that made King Saul a vivid subject. What he did was build a temple, welcome the Queen of Sheba on a state visit and find an ingenious solution in a tricky lawsuit. At least, these are the things he does in the oratorio; Handel does not mention his high taxes, his impressive harem or the books of the Bible attributed to him.
In "Solomon's" only truly dramatic incident, two women claim to be the mother of the same baby, and the king finds the real mother by threatening to kill the baby and observing their reactions. Handel's treatment of this episode confirms that he was one of the greatest dramatic composers in history. Act 1 (on the building of the temple) reinforces his reputation as a composer of ceremonial music. In Act 3, the Queen of Sheba is ushered in and entertained with a series of choruses designed to "rouse each passion": sweet and gentle, martial, despairing, turbulent and calm.
These choruses inspired Robert Shafer, his excellent little orchestra and his brilliant big chorus to an outstanding display of skill. The dynamics were magnificently controlled, the tonal color pure and well balanced, the diction clear, the rhythmic vitality and variety awesome, the ensemble singing precise. In the title role, alto Gretchen Greenfield had rich tone and a fine dramatic style. Soprano Regina McConnell filled three roles impressively; soprano Donna Gullstrand had only one role (the real mother in Act 2), but she conveyed its full dramatic impact. In the role of Zadok, the High Priest, tenor Gene Tucker was, as always, a model of stylistic sensitivity and artistic phrasing, especially commendable for his work in the difficult passages of vocal ornamentation.