Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba in Freiburg

Die Königin von Saba is a German romantic grand opera first performed in 1875. Immensely popular in its day, with its combination of an exotic setting, religion and sex, and big choral scenes, it is now largely forgotten. As regards Germany and Austria, this can in part be explained by the fact that its composer Karl Goldmark was Jewish and the work could not be staged after 1933. Operas by other Jewish composers which suffered the same fate – Korngold, Schreker and Zemlinsky to name but a few – have won their way back into the repertory in recent years. Why not Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba? The score, while in part simplistic and predictable, is powerfully lyrical and with some passages of serene beauty. It was clearly influenced by Wagner in terms both of style and of theme: an anguished male torn between the Eve and Lilith dimensions of womanhood, purity and virtue on the one side, seduction and guile on the other. As revealed in the current performances at Freiburg, dramatically it makes for a compelling operatic experience.

Fabrice Bollon in the pit made a strong case for taking the work seriously and the local company had some of the voices required. Petya Ivanova as the virtuous and loyal Sulamith impressed with her luminous soprano, clearly ready for the equivalent role of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and the Thai tenor Nuttaporn Thammathi as Assad, though physically awkward on the stage, sang with an unfailingly full and bright tone. Juan Orozco was an imposing Solomon but had some occasional uncomfortable moments vocally. Katerina Hebelková; in the title role was somewhat taxed by the higher lying passages in the final act and more importantly was unable to give the Queen a clear dramatic profile.

Kirsten Harms’ overall conception of the piece was fine and, with husband Bernd Damovsky’s attractive designs, her production had some perceptive sequences – I particularly liked the appearance of Assad before a transparent Wailing Wall and the orthodox Israelites receiving books from heaven. But there was too much finicky and unnecessary detail, for example having Solomon as a psychiatrist taking notes as, on a couch, Assad reflects on his dilemma.  Nevertheless, taken as a whole, this was a fascinating rediscovery of an old operatic warhorse.