Cher Public

Talents of Gold(mark)

These days labeling something “old-fashioned” usually comes across pejoratively. But while most everything about the Hungarian State Opera’s Die Königin von Saba Friday was old-fashioned it was the most sheerly enjoyable night at the opera I’ve spent this whole year! 

Throughout the evening I couldn’t help thinking that this1870s Biblical epic of erotic obsession and penance was what the Met should have been doing this fall rather than its misbegotten Samson et Dalila. I’d take Goldmark’s ravishing score any day over Saint-Saëns’s more labored effort despite its mezzo hit numbers and knockout ballet.

Director Csaba Káel’s production didn’t wink at the dated melodramatic plot; rather its committed cast embraced it simply and effectively. Aspects that might have come across as camp—tableaus that resembled black-and-white stills from a decades-old volume of The Victor Book of Opera—instead seemed, well, just touchingly old-fashioned.

Salomon Herrmann Mosenthal’s four-act libretto deals with the havoc caused in King Solomon’s kingdom when the mysterious pagan Queen of Sheba visits. Her appearance coincides with the impending marriage of Sulamith, daughter of the High Priest, to Assad, whose recent uncharacteristically distracted behavior causes alarm.

He soon confesses to the King that while away he had a blissful encounter with an unknown woman whose beauty haunts him. The King counsels him to forget all that nonsense and just settle down as planned with that nice Jewish girl who’s devoted to him. But he recognizes the Queen as the object of his passion and thereby creates a public commotion.

In public the Queen repeatedly does a very Mariah Carey “I don’t know him” but privately she is equally bewitched. Their rapturous reunion in the palace garden in the first scene of the second act which contains several of the score’s many jewels: the Queen’s aria of yearning, then her servant Astaroth’s exotic siren call to Assad to which he replies with his besotted “Magische Töne,” the work’s most famous excerpt.

After disrupting Assad and Sulamith’s subsequent nuptials, the Queen becomes bolder demanding Solomon turn over Assad as a sign of his hospitality while Assad is wracked with remorse after he publicly calls the Queen his goddess and is condemned to death for blasphemy.

A humiliated Sulamith resolves to devote herself to a solitary religious life and wanders alone into the desert where she (of course) encounters Assad who has been pardoned and banished. As must inevitably happen, he dies forgiven in his faithful lover’s arms for the “happy” ending although Káel denied them that final embrace.

It’s hard not to eyeroll the plot as silly pseudo-religious kitsch but somehow the lushness of Goldmark’s score and the absolute devotion of the Hungarian forces made a true believer out of me. Conductor János Kovács drew sumptuously beguiling sounds from an orchestra that was on much more inspired form than it had been at Bánk Bán several nights earlier.

While not directly derivative, the music occasionally reminded me of Meyerbeer, more Weber—but most of all of early Wagner. The plot also contains unmistakable echoes of Tannhäuser with Sulamith and the Queen uncanny stand-ins for Elisabeth and Venus.

Boldizsár László meekly modest first entrance had everyone imagining he was just the messenger rather than Assad, the tortured hero. That he remained a bit of a schlub throughout made his life-shattering crisis all the more arresting. After a slow start he quickly warmed to his demanding music, giving a gripping account of his long monologue remembering his startlingly sensuous first meeting with the Queen.

While not particularly beautiful, László’s strong tenor had the stamina and brightly penetrating high notes to make something touching of his dying despair and ultimate redemption in the desert.

His put-upon but faithful Sulamith was strikingly taken by Eszter Sümegi, whose voluminous soaring soprano could become harsh at moments but eventually settled down. Most moving was her third-act aria in which she both pled for Assad’s life and revealed to the King her spiritual awakening. She bore a striking resemblance to Yvonne DeCarlo as Moses’s wife Sephora in Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which seemed oddly apt.

Although she was labeled a mezzo-soprano and her repertoire includes Erda, the comely Erika Gál sounded more like a penetrating lyric soprano as the Queen. She carried off perhaps the most dramatically challenging part, limning credibly both the haughty beauty and the lovestruck woman desperate for a chance at an impossible happiness with Assad.

As Solomon, Zoltán Kelemen (apparently no relation to the late Hungarian bass-baritone best known as Herbert von Karajan’s Alberich and Don Pizarro), gravely sought to mediate the unimaginable romantic and religious conflicts facing his kingdom. Despite his royal title, he remained less a proactive leader than a noble confidante to the stricken love triangle. The weakest principal was Peter Fried as the High Priest whose worn and dry bass gave out entirely as he presided over his daughter’s calamitous wedding.

While audiences nationwide this weekend were flocking to Bohemian Rhapsody, I was happy to have encountered this Queen. Friday’s Lincoln Center crowd throughout the nearly three-and-a-half-hour performance were unusually intent and rewarded the performers with enthusiastic bravos I have heard all too rarely this season.

Circumstances sadly forced the cancellation of a second scheduled Die Königin von Saba—particularly as it had been nearly 50 years since New York City last heard it and over 110 years since the Met last staged the work. Who knows when we might ever hear it again, particularly as old-fashioned grand opera doesn’t seem so popular in the US these days. But at least I will now be able to tell anyone who will listen that I was there on November 2, 2018 for a rare and Gold(mark)en evening.

A broadcast of Die Königin von Saba posted on “Trove Thursday” several weeks ago featuring Anja Silja, Sabine Hass, Siegfried Jerusalem and Wolfgang Brendel conducted by Julius Rudel remains available for listening and/or downloading.