OPERA NEWS - The Queen of Sheba
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In Review > North America

The Queen of Sheba

Hungarian State Opera | Koch Theater at Lincoln Center

In Review Queen of Sheba hdl 1118
Boldizsár László as Assad and Ericka Gál as the Queen of Sheba in Hungarian State Opera performances of Karl Goldmark’s opera at Lincoln Center
Photos by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera
In Review Queen of Sheba lg 1118
Eszter Sümegi as Sulamith in The Queen of Sheba
Photos by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

IN AN ERA OF HOMOGENIZED INTERNATIONAL OPERA, the distinct national flavor of the Hungarian State Opera’s November 2 Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba) was both remarkable and welcome. You could hear it in the weight and warmth of the orchestral playing, very different from the brilliance of the Met’s pit band. (It was as if a hand on the tone controls had turned up the bass.) You could also hear it in the solidity and fervor of the choral singing. But the “Hungarian” nature of this performance of Karl Goldmark’s 1875 opera, part of the State Opera’s two-week opera-and-ballet stint at Lincoln Center, was most evident in the singing of its home-grown principals. Their accomplishments varied, but their essential vocal makeup was strikingly consistent, favoring slicing forward projection and minimal use of vibrato over plushness of tone: when they sang, my frontal lobes resonated in sympathy. 

The most persuasive exemplar of the approach was soprano Eszter Sümegi as Sulamith—the Micaela figure in the work’s central love triangle, and a role taken on by the legendary Wagnerian Lilli Lehmann at the opera’s Met premiere, in 1885. Sümegi’s metallic sound took some getting used to, but it had tremendous presence; in her entrance aria, when Sulamith misguidedly exults in her upcoming marriage, it rang through the house with Valkyrie-like clarity. In later, more inward moments, Sümegi scaled the sound down, but even at its quietest, the voice retained its firm core.

The steely vocal manner of Erika Gál, as the seductive Queen, was strikingly similar to Sümegi’s. She lists Giovanna Seymour and Erda among her roles, but here to me she sounded like a dramatic soprano, a tendency to cut high notes short the only indication that her comfort zone laid somewhat lower than the very top. I wish she had brought more voluptuousness to the assignment, and provided a more marked aural contrast to her colleague, but the forward thrust of her sound was unquestionably exciting. 

The tenor role of Assad, the fulcrum of the triangle, is most famous for “Magische tone,” an aria that has survived in tenor repertory while the rest of The Queen of Sheba has faded into obscurity. It is a brutally challenging piece, demanding sustained lyricism as the singer repeatedly navigates through the register break. It also seems to call for a very different kind of singer—a Pearl Fishers Nadir, perhaps—than the heldentenor-ish remainder of the role. A hint of a burble toward the end of the aria was the only sign that Boldizsár László allowed of its difficulty; otherwise, the effect was “magische” indeed. Elsewhere his sound was neither overwhelmingly beautiful nor powerful, but always steady and audible, and in keeping with his confrères, acquiring an extra level of penetration in its upper reaches. 

Baritone Zoltán Kelemen, as King Solomon, despite the dark tinge of his voice, also made his most striking effects in his upper register, where his sound, wooly and unfocused below, took on a striking degree of definition. Bass Péter Fried, as the High Priest, was having such a rough time getting sound out that you had to assume he was suffering from a cold. Despite the splendid sounds that conductor János Kovács drew from his forces, his leadership was slack: I wish the musical argument of this unfamiliar work had been more clearly delineated. 

The production made a much weaker case for the company than the musical performance. Csaba Káel’s staging mostly called for the singers to stand and stolidly deliver, except when it imposed senseless perversities—as in the finale, when Sulamith remained behind a scrim, standing on the palace stairs in Jerusalem, rather than joining her lover in the desert. The gimcrack set (Éva Szendrényi) managed to evoke neither nineteenth–century splendor nor contemporary operatic décor, instead seeming like an aftertaste of Soviet-era tackiness. The spangled harem outfit that Anikó Németh devised for the title character made Gál look like a Gabor sister set loose in a swords-and-sandals epic. The costumes for the ballet corps were hideous, and so was Marianna Venekei’s choreography.  —Fred Cohn

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