In a few minutes I will be speaking with Elizabeth Sutphen, a young soprano with a fabulous voice who will be singing the dual roles of Second Harlot and the Queen of Sheba in the Burlington Choral Society performance of Handel’s Solomon. Has there ever been a more daunting assignment for a singer? Not only are there musical and vocal challenges associated with each role, but the gender, sexual, and cultural politics associated with representing two women who represent such polar opposites of “desirability” make this an especially a tough assignment.
Handel’s Solomon tells three stories from the life of King Solomon. In the first act, Solomon, who is of royal birth (David’s son), is depicted as humble and grateful for his material and intellectual endowments, and for his loving wife – his first wife. In the second act, in which Solomon determines “justice” in the case of two prostitutes each claiming that they are the mother of a son, Solomon is shown as wise, if somewhat aloof and imperious. In the third act, in which Solomon entertains the Queen of Sheba, he is powerfully seductive.
What is memorable in this particular telling of the Solomon story is that Solomon is more or less defined by the women with whom he interacts. In the first act Solomon is depicted as the ultimate “catch” – wise, good looking, and sexy – because his wife (his first wife), tells us so. (He goes on, the Bible tells us, to have 700 wives and 300 concubines.). In the second, he administers “justice” by using his kingly powers to toy with the emotions of the two prostitutes as they each claim to be the mother of a baby boy. After threatening to cut the baby in half in order to satisfy the apparently equal claim of the two women, Solomon cooly reveals his thinking: the “decision was to trace with art the secret dictates of the human heart.” In the absence of “one pious tear” from the Second Harlot, Solomon’s judgement is for the First Harlot, returning the baby to the true mother. Here Solomon adroitly discerns where justice truly lies, but he is happy to get there by manipulating the emotions of two women who are completely vulnerable to his exercise of power.
The third act is all about his successful seduction of the Queen of Sheba. Of all the women Solomon had in his life, the Queen of Sheba was, he felt, his only equal in beauty and intellect. That she tried to resist him only enflamed his desire, and her desirability. The librettist of Solomon does not describe this seduction literally, but suggests it, knowing that his audience would be familiar with the story. On the surface – just as Solomon and the Queen of Sheba are described as “pious and great” – their time together is a metaphorically described as an appreciation of riches and wisdom. Their time together does not end in sexual passion (producing a son, Menelik I, the first Solomonic Emperor of Ethiopia), but in the Queen of Sheba having received “knowledge.” Below the surface, however, Act 3 is all about Solomon’s highly-charged seduction of the Queen of Sheba, and can be heard – as I hear it – as intensely and pervasively sexual.
Without these women to define him, Solomon would be a cipher. Women reveal his power – and his vulnerability.
Is there currently a woman in power for whom we need to know something about her men in order to understand the true essence of who she is? Who are the heirs of the Queen of Sheba?
Elizabeth Sutphen, in her dual roles as the bitchy Second Harlot and regal Queen of Sheba, will help us understand Solomon. Will Bill Clinton and Barack Obama provide us with the same insight into Hilary Clinton?