GOLDMARK Königin von Saba
Die Königin von Saba was the work that put its Hungarian-Jewish composer on the operatic map at its first performance in Vienna in 1875. It was hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic in its day, though in Britain, the Lord Chamberlain’s prohibition against the theatrical representation of Biblical subjects prevented its being heard in London until 1910. Strauss and Mahler were among its many conductors. Caruso was one of several star tenors to play Assad, whose uncontrollable desire for the Queen of Sheba destroys his relationship with his intended bride Sulamith. Lilli Lehmann included both principal female roles in her considerable repertory. Its popularity waned after the First World War, though it was revived annually in Vienna until 1938, when the Nazis banned it.
Goldmark is usually dismissed as eclectic, though his work can also be viewed as adopting a cosmopolitan stance at a time of growing nationalism. Just as he saw no inherent dichotomy between Brahms (a friend) and Wagner (he liked the music but not the man or his opinions), so he perceived no disjunction between elements of Wagnerian methodology and post-Meyerbeerian grand opera. With its four-act/five-scene structure, ballets, grand ceremonials and complex theatrical demands (Assad dies in a sandstorm), Die Königin von Saba is in many ways a fine example of the latter. Goldmark deploys closed forms – the set-piece arias can be analysed in terms of recitative, cavatina and cabaletta – and avoids anything approximating the symphonic development of thematic material. The Wagnerisms lie elsewhere.
The narrative is frequently cited as derived from Tannhäuser, though there are shifts in emphasis. Assad is a warrior and diplomat, rather than an artist. There’s none of Wagner’s pseudo-Christian emphasis on chastity: the texts of Sulamith’s arias derive from the Song of Songs and her feelings for Assad are explicitly sexual. Wagner’s influence on vocal writing and harmony is, however, significant. The big choruses unfurl with majestic slowness like the ceremonies from Lohengrin, while the Queen, when crossed, resorts to Ortrud-like phrases over an immense span. Tristan-esque chromatics turn Orientalist in their depiction of the Queen and her retinue, while Assad’s hallucinations in the Syrian desert steer close to Tristan’s ravings in Wagner’s Act 3. The shockingly brief love duet, however, is the antithesis of Tristan – a furtive quickie rather than a night of rapture – though there’s a terrifically sexy passage towards the end, when the Queen, sensing Assad is deserting her, uses all her wiles to get him back.
The new recording hails from Freiburg and the same team that gave us CPO’s much-admired Francesca da Rimini earlier this year (1/16). The two sets share the same conductor in Fabrice Bollon, and hence a number of similarities in approach: subtlety in music that can turn bombastic if insensitively handled; orchestral refinement and a refusal to indulge in melodrama or crude effects; and singing of great authority from a uniformly fine, if unfamiliar cast, who more than adequately meet the score’s challenges.
We could do with more words from Katerina Hebelková’s Queen, but her voice, with its quick vibrato and dark, almost Rita Gorr-ish tone, is deeply sensual, and we fully understand why her Assad, Thai tenor Nuttaporn Tammathi, is so fatally attracted. He’s a real find, singing with eloquence, passion and a voice of remarkable beauty and evenness: his ‘Magische Töne’, the best-known number in the score, ends with a breathtaking ascent to its final high pianissimos. Irma Mihelič’s silvery-toned Sulamith is touchingly vulnerable, though this is a voice that can also soar with thrilling ease over massive choral forces. Hungaroton’s 1980 recording with Siegfried Jerusalem as Assad and Klára Takács as the Queen seems staid and unnecessarily grandiose in comparison. It’s a heady, enthralling experience, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.