Karl Goldmark: Die Königin von Saba (1875)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 3 hours 9 minutes.

In honor of the 104th birthday of my favorite actress of all time, Olivia de Havilland, I present this new post, a work which has given me more inspiration and joy than any other German-language opera.

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SETTING: Jerusalem and the surrounding desert, 10th century B.C.E. The diplomat Assad (tenor) is engaged to Sulamith (soprano) the daughter of the High Priest (bass), but has fallen in love with a mysterious woman while working for King Solomon (baritone) in Lebanon. This is the Queen of Sheba (mezzo-soprano) herself, who, when she arrives to give a wedding present as the couple is being married, unintentionally causes Assad to blaspheme in the Temple, and be sentenced to death.

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ACT 1: A hall in the Palace of Solomon. (62 minutes)

0: The overture ** is (apart from the very beginning) a placid ballet piece basically, nothing demanding, actually rather restful in comparison to the inevitable high drama that is to follow. It ends rather similarly to the ending of the overture of Romeo et Juliette (Gounod, that is).

8: Öffnet euch, Tore The brief but jubilant opening chorus ** is followed by a good recitative for the High Priest as he awaits his daughter Sulamith, who is to marry her beloved Assad the following day.

13: Mein Assad kehrt zurück! Sulamith herself arrives anticipating the return of Assad in a long aria **. A very modern sounding number, it quotes Lohengrin, and possibly Norma (Casta Diva ?) a number of times and has a high soprano descant. A dreamy piece.

20: Dem König Heil! The arrival of Assad before Solomon **, mostly turns into a rather emotional scene with Sulamith, who can tell that something is very wrong with her betrothed. Nevertheless, they are to be married the next day according to the High Priest (her father). Solomon finally responds, dismissing everyone except Assad (this sounds a little Richard Strauss, specifically Guntram, just saying).

26: Ich les auf deinem bleichen Minde The next quarter hour consists of a long aria for **  Assad with minor interjections from King Solomon. It starts off with Assad going into the narrative of his trip to Lebanon (agitated), then more serenity (and Meyerbeerian) in a recitative which seems to include an organ effect and blossoms into a free arioso (with harp) as he describes his encounter with a mysterious woman. The King tries to dissuade him from rejecting Sulamith and pursuing whoever the mysterious woman is, but Assad is too preoccupied with his desire to care. In the last two minutes it turns into a duet for the tenor and baritone in (mostly) unison.

41: The Entrance of the Queen of Sheba is a fantastic ten and a half-minute march sequence *** and shares some similarity to the Coronation March from Le Prophete if it is more subtle.  The second section is the first instance of orientalism in the score. With less than three minutes to the end we get some choral glorification for the Queen. Solomon addresses her first, then she responds in kind and then Assad realizes who she is (she is the woman he had the encounter with in Lebanon!).

54: Dieses Auge, Dieses Zuge The act finale *** is a mad confusion divided into two parts as the soloists embark on a septet, and then what at first appears to be a furious stretta act finale before the Queen declares she does not know Assad (which is a lie) and he is taken away for being insane. Finally there is a brilliant stretta with chorus that ends the act.

ACT 2: (63 minutes)

Scene 1: A Garden.

0: The act opens with night music ** which is strangely indebted to Mendelssohn (this literally is the nocturne from A Midsummer Nights Dream). Around the midway point it turns into festive ballet music with a slightly more Wagnerian bent (Lohengrin, traces of Tannhauser). 

8: Aus des Jubels Festgeprange A massive, fourteen minute aria ** for the Queen, interrupted only by her slave Astaroth who announces that Assad is to be brought to her. It starts off with a repeat of the nocturne from the start of the act. The cabaletta betrays its march meter, but also contains obvious traces of Tannhauser. The Queen then embarks on some unaccompanied trills. A harp pops in, and we know we are in for something.

22: Magische Tone A beautifully delicate tenor aria for the entering Assad *** ending on a high C. Three gloriously distracting minutes.

25: Assad! Suddenly, he turns on her and she is forced to explain her denial in a beautiful duet ***. It is interrupted by the call to prayers from the High Priest (or the nightwatchman, but it was performed by the same bass as the High Priest in the first performance).

32: Die Sonne steigt Baal-Hanan, the palace steward, leads the Israelites in prayers *** and finds Assad in a daze after the Queen has left him.

Scene 2: The Temple of Solomon.

37: Danket dem Herrn After a dawn out of Also Sprach Zarathustra, we get a very good hymn from the Israelites and their High Priest *** which appears to be based on some sort of Cantorial chant. Watch out about four minutes in when it really turns on full blast.

42: Wie auf das Saatkorn A bridal chorus for Sulamith ** followed by a passage of arioso for her which strongly sounds like it came from the first act aria for the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflote. 

47: Blick empor zu Solomon gives away Assad in a rather lyrically accompanied aria **. The King orders that the ceremony proceed and the High Priest announces the benedictions to the Amens! of the people (all a cappella).

51, 57: Wer mir, wer naht sich mir! The second act finale *** is a brilliant piece of dramatic theatre: Assad is about to place the ring of the finger of Sulamith when the Queen arrives under the innocent pretext of leaving a bridal present for Sulamith, and he blows up at her, tearing off her veil. The ensemble that follows also betrays its meter and is dramatically stilted for effect as there are calls for his execution for this offense against the foreign Queen. The High Priest decides to exorcise Assad, even exposing him to the Ark of the Covenant *** while the others (apart from the Queen who nevertheless takes the opportunity to veil herself) are prostrate with their heads to the ground crying out Hallelujah!, but nothing works (Assad ends up declaring that he worships only the Queen as his goddess) and he is dragged off to be executed as Sulamith and the Queen make useless pleas to spare him amid the horrified crowd and the malediction of the High Priest and the Levites. And on that the act abruptly ends.

ACT 3: Banquet Hall in the Palace. (39 minutes)

0, 7: The first half of the act consists of a three minute prelude which immediately goes into a ten minute long ballet divertissemente **. It is a million miles away from the end of the previous act, although well within the orientalism of the score. One movement, the  fourth ** of five (also the longest), will probably seem familiar as it is used in film soundtracks. The finish is a bit more energetic and exotic, if brief. It is followed up by a very bouncy chorus which is rather German folk band-ish.

14: Vom Mahle brichst The remainder of the act (twenty-four minutes) consists of two long petition sequences before Solomon: the first from the Queen herself ** (who orders out all the dancers and has the curtains drawn). It is ironically the weakest number in the entire opera (it takes over four minutes just to tee-up). It isn’t bad at all, but compared to everything else in the opera (which is admittedly of an extremely high voltage) it is rather melodramatic and it seems to be all over the place (none of the themes are repeated, the middle one especially being rather good, denying the number musical cohesion). Something had to get it, I guess, although it is possible that Goldmark did this deliberately to undermine that the Queen does not actually love Assad at all, and is self-motivated in her plea. Baal-Hanan informs Solomon that the sentence has been passed on Assad (he is to be executed) and only Solomon has the power to pardon him if he so chooses. The King orders that Assad be brought to him, then suddenly the chorus is heard in the distance.

28: Wie Jephthas Tochter Sulamith arrives with her plea *** dressed entirely in black. This is the tour-de-force for the soprano as she declares that either Assad be set free, or she will banish herself to the desert forever as a perpetual virgin, never to be seen or heard from by men (or anyone for that matter) again. The music indicates that the petition Sulamith gives is the real deal, it is continuously flowing with the orchestra and chorus welling up full accompaniment for her. The climatic crescendo is overwhelming, and it is the finest number in the score. And yet she too is refused by Solomon. Initially….

ACT 4: Desert, near the retreat of Sulamith. (25 minutes)

2: Assad! The Queen comes upon Assad in the desert and begs him to fly with her to Sheba ***. This is actually rather splendid, and watch for the traces of the themes from the overture. He rejects her because he has realized that what he has done has destroyed the innocent Sulamith and she leaves.

11, 15: Komm, Tod! Assad prays for death ** and for Sulamith. A magnificent sandstorm *** wells up and leaves him half-dead from exhaustion.

18: Unsre Tranen taun The finale **. A chorus of virgins is heard in the distance, Sulamith among them. She finds Assad dying; they are reconciled, and he dies in her arms. The opera ends with a chorus of virgins in the distance praising eternal love. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

This is quite possibly my favorite opera composed in the German language. Yet another opera which I am surprised has taken me so long to review!

The inevitable effect of the music of Die Konigin von Saba is one of multiple sources. It is obviously a grand opera, complete with multiple ballets no less, and involves Meyerbeerian (even Bellinian?)  vocal display and orchestral innovations influenced by Wagner, but only influenced. And this Wagner is only that of Tannhauser and Lohengrin, with traces of possibly Meistersinger and references to Tristan. Goldmark has obviously created something different here, a unique style that is neither Meyerbeer nor middle period Wagner, but a synthesis of the two (also with traces of Mendelssohn, Mozart, and probably Schumann as well) which can only be considered entirely the work of Goldmark himself. In fact, it can be seen as an expansion on what Meyerbeer was already doing in terms of Italianate vocal effects and Teutonic orchestral innovation (mostly in terms of the fluidity with which the music is presented which can be termed Wagnerian, yet these can also be seen as the influence of French Grand Opera, and thus Meyerbeer), although this time within a German linguistic context. There is also the element of orientalism, especially in the characterization of the Queen herself and of the Israelite temple (mid-19th century contemporary synagogal cantorial techniques used in Vienna at the time which sought a return to eastern musical forms may have influenced this aspect of the score and are particularly on display with the chorus and the High Priest). Sulamith and Assad especially are executed very well by the score, which, considering that Goldmark was a first timer here, are very complex characters with multiple layers of emotions. Each of the first three acts starts with over seven, even ten, minutes of orchestral music sans singing, which gives Goldmark opportunity to display his obvious orchestral mastery; high strings are used to depict madness, flight to Sheba etc.. The role of Queen is written for mezzo-soprano, as it was intended for (but never performed by) the Austro-Hungarian mezzo Caroline von Comperz-Bettelheim, and this is an interesting bit of vocal casting as the role is rather extensive, requiring a large amount of time in the upper octave, yet rarely requiring anything above a high A (there is a single high C, but it is more of a cry than a singable note and it is masked by the tenor). It is also a rather brief role, as apart from act two she only appears for around ten minutes (if not less) in the other three acts. The plot is somewhat brief for a three hour long opera, and the first two acts, taken separately, are almost as long as the last two acts combined (the fourth is almost an epilogue of the third, which is almost entirely a ballet with two massive arias for the two female leads), but other than that I really can not fault this opera at all. It is an excellent compendium of musical styles (French, German, Italian, Jewish).

An alpha plus.

3 thoughts on “Karl Goldmark: Die Königin von Saba (1875)

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