By Arthur Kaptainis
BUDAPEST — The centenary of the death of Karl Goldmark was obviously related to the decision of the Hungarian State Opera to mount a new production of his grandly scaled first opera of 1875, Die Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba). The final performance of an autumn run in the Erkel Theatre — the less venerable of the two Budapest facilities used by this company — made it clear that the world should not have to await the bicentennial of the composer’s birth in 2030 to see a revival. This lavish and accomplished amalgam of Biblical spectacle and Wagnerian passion was a hit in its day and could be a hit again.
It is worth keeping in mind how popular Die Königin von Saba once was. Critics (including the dependably dyspeptic Eduard Hanslick) carped after its premiere in Vienna in 1875, but such judgments did not prevent a well-attended initial run followed by a tour through central European capitals and Italy.
With 15 performances in 1885-86, Goldmark’s opera was reported by the New York Times to have been the top-drawing production of the Metropolitan Opera season, although Wagner was surely the highest-grossing composer with 35 performances of five operas. Die Königin von Saba remained in circulation in Europe and was given regularly in Hungary — where Goldmark was regarded as a native son despite his self-identification as Viennese — until 1938, when the rise of Nazism brought its career to a predictable halt.
I say bring it back. Even the overture, with its decisive start (the opening unison of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 comes to mind) and compelling sequence of ear-catching motifs (including a throbbing cello line equated throughout with unrequited love) would make a viable addition to the symphonic repertoire.
The curtain opens with a stately chorus establishing the ceremonial surroundings and the basics of the plot: a planned marriage between the soprano Sulamith, the high-strung daughter of the High Priest of Solomon’s court, and the heroic tenor Assad, who unfortunately has been smitten by the Queen of Sheba (a sultry mezzo-soprano with an extended top) on a diplomatic mission in advance of her famous arrival.
None of this can be found in the Book of Kings, which tells merely of how Solomon answered the Queen of Sheba’s (unspecified) questions in a manner befitting the wisest of all monarchs and received many splendid gifts in return. And, indeed, the King in Goldmark’s opera is, from his first entry, portrayed as a sober dispenser of advice and justice rather than a character with an emotional stake in the drama. As for the Queen, she is a Middle-Eastern Mae West whose interest in Assad seems out of keeping with her station.
The librettist, Salomon Hermann Mosenthal, was certainly a pro, perhaps the busiest in Vienna, but not the most responsive, to judge by Goldmark’s report in his memoirs. Nevertheless, the improbabilities iron themselves out on stage as the locus of interest becomes Assad, distraught by the triangle he finds himself in, and Sulamith, who is exasperated for the obvious reasons. He gets an extended Wagnerian monologue in Act 1, with Solomon as his interlocutor, while Sulamith summons up a veritable “Liebestod” in Act 3 (“Doch eh’ ich in des Todes Tal”) as a plea to Solomon to save Assad, who is deemed a blasphemer for worshipping the Queen. It all ends tragically in the desert, as it should, after Assad rejects the Queen and manages reconciliation with Sulamith.
The score is through-composed with a few set numbers, including “Magische Töne,” which became the opera’s most easily extracted calling card. Yet it is interesting that Goldmark the Wagnerian modulates quickly at the end of this arietta to frustrate applause. The ballets of Acts 1 and 3 are tuneful, and the touches of exoticism (including evocations of a ram’s horn and a vocalise) are relatively restrained. Hanslick was determined to find traces of the “synagogue” in the score — it was widely known that Goldmark was the son of a Hungarian cantor and notary — but in fact the fabric is no more exotic than it needs to be.
All this was apparent in the State Opera production with an all-Hungarian cast led by László Boldizsár as Assad. Possibly some in the phlegmatic crowd expected a Heldentenor vocal quality, but this excellent spinto got his sound and interpretation across. Anikó Bakonyi was fiery as Sulamith and Judit Németh applied a lustrous voice (if only moderately convincing acting skills) to the title role. Bass András Palerdi was our sturdy High Priest, whose resemblance to Ramfis reminds us that Aida reached Vienna in 1874. Strongest of all was the ringing and focused baritone of Károly Szemerédy as Solomon, truly a voice of authority.
Costumes, as a display of photographs in the lobby confirmed, were based in part on authentic Middle-Eastern garb of the late 19th century, although Hollywood of the early 20th century seems also to have exercised some influence. King Solomon’s robe with a sash and rectangular patches of red and gold had a heraldic look that might have done for a Crusader. The single rotating set by Éva Szendrényi with columns and a majestic staircase (essential when royalty drops by) worked well, especially when upgraded with stars of David and a giant menorah in Act 3. If the garden of Act 2 was makeshift, the fluttering beige sheet in Act 4 evoked the desert storm in a pleasingly old-fashioned way. Director Csaba Káel might have made a more regal thing of the Queen of Sheba’s entrance but otherwise kept the action clear.
Orchestral playing was fluid and firm, a few suspect woodwind chorales aside. (The orchestra in Das Rheingold, which was running concurrently at the 19th-century Opera House, was impeccable.) Conductor János Kovács maintained a lively pace and kept balances just. The chorus sounded suitably devout and horrified at the marriage, which the Queen crashes to unfortunate effect. Ballets featured feline and avian figures better suited to a Halloween party than Solomon’s court. It was a bizarre touch in an otherwise fastidiously retro production.
The crucial takeaway: Not once did I squirm in my seat or glance at my watch. Libraries are groaning with forgotten operas. Commendable efforts lately have been taken to revive them: Clearly we are better endowed with bel canto vehicles than we once were. Searching the German catalog for music written in the shadow (or sunlight) of Wagner should be no less profitable. Die Königin von Saba is an excellent place to start.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for The Gazette (Montreal) and the National Post (Canada).