10 Jun 2007

HANDEL: Solomon

Solomon, an oratorio in three acts (HWV 67).

Music composed by G. F. Handel. Librettist unknown (see below).

First Performance: 17 March 1749, Covent Garden Theatre, London

Principal Characters:
Solomons’s QueenSoprano
Nicaule, Queen of ShebaSoprano
First HarlotSoprano
Second HarlotMezzo-Soprano
Zadok, the High PriestTenor
A LeviteBass

Setting: Ancient Israel

Background and Summary:

The author of the libretto is unknown. Some writers have ascribed it to Thomas Morell, but this seems doubtful when the rest of his work for Handel is compared with it. The language and outline of Solomon are quite different in concept and realization from Morrell’s usual work. The Bible tells of Solomon’s golden reign in Kings I and Chronicles II. The librettist seems to have drawn on both these sources because the famous story of Solomon’s judgment between the two harlots (the false and true mother of the baby) occurs only in Kings; but both books describe the building and dedication of the temple and the visit of the Queen of Sheba.

All three acts of the oratorio deal with a different side of Solomon. Act I emphasizes his piety and marital bliss - the librettist tactfully making no mention of the Biblical 700 wives and 300 concubines. Rather Solomon is portrayed in love scenes with his one beloved wife and queen, who has no name except that she is Pharaoh’s daughter. The first scene of the act shows the opening of the temple with songs of praise to Solomon’s greatness by Zadok, the priest, and the people. In the second scene, Solomon promises his queen a palace as they retire to the cedar grove. They pledge their love amid flowers, sweet breezes, and singing nightingales.

Act II portrays the wisdom of Solomon. After the king has shown proper humility before his God for what he has achieved, two women are brought in. The first claims that the baby the other is carrying belongs rightfully to her. Both have shared a house and each has borne a child. The first harlot says that the second woman’s child died, and during the night the latter came in and took her baby away, leaving the dead child instead. The second harlot replies that the situation is just the opposite, and the child is really hers. Solomon offers to divide the child in two with a sword, so that each will have half. This frightening proposal quickly uncovers the true mother — the first harlot. She tells the king she would rather relinquish the child to spare its life. The second woman readily agrees to the proposition, exposing her lack of any real maternal concern. Solomon tells the woman he had no intention of slaying the infant but took this way of learning the truth. The chorus and the first harlot pay tribute to Solomon’s wise judgment.

Act III is very similar to Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast in that Solomon presents a musical masque for the visiting Queen of Sheba. The passions of fury, tortured soul, and calm are so vividly portrayed by the chorus and Solomon that the Queen is overwhelmed by the power of the representation. The view of the newly finished temple completes her awe, and she presents her treasure to the great Solomon. Both end by pledging peace and glory to their respective realms.

[Adapted from program notes by J. Merrill Knapp]

Click here for the complete libretto.