> Opera and Oratorio
Die Königin von Saba
Hebelková, Mihelič; Thammathi, Szemerédy, J. S. Lee; Various choirs, Freiburg Philharmonic, Bollon. Text and translation. CPO 555-013-2 (3)
KARL GOLDMARK (1830–1915) was born within Boieldieu’s and Bellini’s lifetimes; Britten and Lutoslawski were born within his. A transitional figure whose colorful, tuneful works drew on many sources, he wrote operas that have left the stage except for occasional revivals in his native Hungary. His grand opera Die Königin von Saba racked up twenty-nine performances at the Met from 1885 to 1905. It was very popular at first, but it grew less so over the next two decades—and then it vanished from New York. Both the subject matter and the composer and librettist’s Jewish heritage stalled the opera when Nazism took hold in Europe; as with Meyerbeer’s works, with which it shares broad scenic and vocal demands, the performance tradition withered. Fabrice Bollon’s honest, highly competent 2015 recording from Theater Freiburg provides a fine, enjoyable take on a worthy score.
Goldmark’s well-structured work benefits from skilled orchestration and the ability to evoke sensuous colors and moods; the dramatic pacing—even with the then-obligatory ballet sequences—is quite assured. Though fluent and enjoyable throughout, it lacks personal or memorable melodic invention. Only Assad’s lovely “Magische Töne”—a tenor showpiece for everyone from Leo Slezak to a young Ben Bliss—lingers long in the memory. (Freiburg’s Natthaporn Thammati, a credible stylist and technician with a pleasant timbre and easy access to head voice, manages it nicely enough.)
Goldmark’s music and Solomon von Mosenthal’s libretto evoke Biblical musical works. The High Priest’s prayer with chorus bears more than a trace of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and Goldmark deploys the harp, flute and bells that signal “Middle Eastern otherness” from Solomon through Samson et Dalila and beyond. But the plot is really Tannhäuser reinscribed in ancient Israel: Solomon’s messenger Assad is caught between his pure fiancée Sulamith, the High Priest’s daughter, and Solomon’s high-powered sex tourist, the Queen of Sheba. There’s also a grand scene of public scandal when the astounded Assad recognizes the unknown beauty of his desert oasis tryst when the Queen unveils herself at Solomon’s court. It’s straight from the Huguenots playbook, recalling the misled Raoul denouncing Valentine.
Thammathi’s protagonist is valiant and expressive if sometimes light-voiced for his part’s more rigorous passages; the same is true of Katerina Hebelková’s sensitively limned Sulamith. Irma Mihelič’s somewhat more opaque sound suits the glamorous but mysterious title character; she phrases effectively with a somewhat stopped-down tone. Jin Sook Lee’s steady High Priest projects authority despite a light accent and weak low notes. Incisive bass-baritone Károly Szemerédy, slightly tremulous as Solomon, knows his business.
The orchestra and the choruses show signs of considerable preparation. One would happily encounter Die Königin von Saba in a performance of like quality. —David Shengold