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Karl GOLDMARK (1830-1915)
Die Königin von Saba (1875) [188.19]
Katerina Hebelková, mezzo-soprano – Queen of Sheba
Nuttaporn Thammathi, tenor – Assad
Irma Mihelič, soprano – Sulamith
Károly Szemerédy, baritone – Solomon
Kim-Lillian Strebel, soprano – Astaroth
Jin Seok Lee, bass – High Priest
Kevin Moreno, baritone – Baal-Haanan
Andrei Yvan, bass – Temple watchman
Freiburg Theatre Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus, Freiburg School of Music Vocal Ensemble, Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Fabrice Bollon
rec. Rolf Böhme Saal, Konzerthaus Freiburg, 4-7 May, 9 June and 28 July 2015
CPO 555 013-2 [3 CDs: 61.49 + 62.32 + 63.58]

Goldmark is generally known now, if at all, for his Rustic Wedding Symphony which was at one time a favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham’s; but his other scores, by no means inconsiderable works, have fallen by the wayside over the years. He was very highly regarded in his day; and his opera The Queen of Sheba, based only tangentially on the Biblical account of the monarch’s visit to King Solomon, was renowned as a serious attempt to tackle the hegemony of Meyerbeer in the field of the grandest of Grand Operas. As such it could be regarded as a sort of successor to Wagner’s Rienzi; and while Goldmark failed to keep up with the process of Wagnerian evolution, his score is more of a unified drama than anything that Meyerbeer produced. The idiom, for those unfamiliar with the composer’s operatic style, is closer to that of Saint-Saëns’s similarly Biblical inspiration in Samson et Dalila; there is the same separation of individual numbers, but at the same time they are bound together into an evolving whole which subsumes the ‘highlights’ into a more massively conceived structure. Indeed, only one of these ‘highlights’, the tenor aria ‘Magische Töne’, succeeded in establishing itself as a popular favourite, and continued to keep the memory of the opera alive when the remainder of the score was consigned to oblivion during the twentieth century.

Modern critics have tended to dismiss Die Könkigen aus Saba as a mere imitation of Meyerbeer’s style of grand opera, although as I have indicated it does constitute a considerable advance on the conventions of those similarly grandiose works. But at the same time, we should not overstate its recognisable virtues: the music for the storm in the desert, for example (CD3, track 12), sounds pallid by comparison with Wagner’s essays in the medium of the depiction of nature. And, despite the claims made in the booklet notes by Wolfgang Berthold, the characterisation is pretty basic: the plot centres around a love triangle between the vacillating Assad and the vampish Queen in competition with a rather pallid rival in the shape of Sulamith – shades of Carmen, perhaps, but none of the characters begin to engage our sympathies in the manner of Bizet. King Solomon himself is reduced to the role of an observant but not forbidding patriarch, and there is the usual scattering of friends and retainers who never establish much of an identity in their own right. As may be gathered, the Biblical nature of the plot is indeed oblique at best; most of the action is pure romantic conflict centred around people who could have come from almost any background. Comparisons with Tannhäuser, similarly revolving around two women competing for the attentions of one man, show exactly how far Goldmark falls short – and not just in the extended conventional ballet sequence which opens Act Three (CD 3, tracks 1-5).

The first, and so far the only other, complete recording of Goldmark’s The Queen of Sheba was made for Hungaroton in 1981 and conducted by Adam Fischer; it was originally issued on four LPs and afterwards on three CDs (with decided improvements in the layout of the music, with each Act contained on a single disc). That version had quite a stellar cast featuring many of the principal Hungarian singers of the day, and including the young Siegfried Jerusalem in one of his very first commercial recordings in the role of Assad. Not all the remainder of the cast had the steadiest or most attractive of voices, but they threw themselves with enthusiasm into their roles. But in any event the Hungaroton set has disappeared from the current listings on Archiv, and at the time of writing Amazon offers only second-hand copies at prices ranging from Ł74.99 for the vinyl to a truly incredible Ł257.57 for the CDs (although a download alternative on mp3 is listed as well).

Those who want a version of the opera for their collection are thus effectively faced with this set, or nothing; and it is therefore good that the cast stands up well in comparison with their Hungaroton rivals. In ‘Magische Töne’ (CD 2, track 4) Siegfried Jerusalem for Fischer gives evidence of the budding heldentenor which he was to become; here Nuttaporn Thammathi sings the aria throughout in a magical sotto voce, but he experiences greater difficulty rising to the more strenuous passages which come later. But at the same time he manages to give plenty of light and shade to his characterisation, as indeed do all the other singers in the principal roles. As the eponymous queen, Katerina Hebelková displays a much more nuanced interpretation than did the stentorian Klára Takács for Fischer, and the ensuing love duet (with its rising modulations showing the distant influence of Tristan) has a much greater effect as a result. Similarly, Irma Mihelič as the ‘goodie’ Sulamith has a beautifully delicate voice, less edgy than Veronika Kincses for Fisher. As Solomon Károly Szemerédy sounds a bit on the young side, but at the same time he is ideally firm and less distractingly paternal in approach than Sandor Solyom Nágy for Fischer. The chorus is less massive than the Hungaroton forces (they could be somewhat more grandiose in the almost Brucknerian accents of the Temple scene, CD 2, track 7), but the supporting roles are all well taken, notably the slave girl of Kim-Lillian Strebel whose offstage vocalise launches the garden scene exquisitely. Fabrice Bollon conducts a reading which has plenty of excitement when required, as well as exposing unexpected subtleties throughout. He shows a keen awareness of Goldmark’s thematic cross-references (not really employed systematically enough to be dignified by the title of leitmotive), and the reminiscence of ‘Magische Töne’ at the end of the garden scene in Act Two is delivered with a real sense of enchantment.

The recording balance is quite different from that on the Hungaroton recording. There the voices were placed well forward from the orchestra in an open studio acoustic; here the sound is that of a resonant auditorium, with the naturally smaller voices further reduced by their placing rather behind that of the orchestra in a theatrical perspective. The former gives more definition to the internal balance of the orchestra, but the new set has a great amplitude and depth and concords well with the more nuanced nature of the performance. The Freiburg orchestra comprises a substantial body of instrumentalists, listed in full in the booklet, and the violin tone in particular (with 25 individual players) has plenty of romantic warmth. Although the recording was clearly made at the same time as stage performances, there is no evidence of an audience and presumably the sessions were held contemporaneously under studio conditions.

The Hungaroton set on LP and CD featured a translation which Roger Dettmer in Fanfare described as “a howler, as fustian as the music though in a different way” (his view of the opera itself may be gleaned from this description). This release brings a new translation by Susan Maria Prader, a veteran of many long struggles with obscure German in CPO’s booklet notes, and it is a vast improvement on the earlier one. At all events I hardly imagine that any potential listener will be overly eager to pay Ł250-plus in order to obtain the Hungaroton set on CD, although if I recall correctly the original LP presentation was quite luxurious.

The booklet here, as we have come to expect from this company, is quite substantial enough; and, as we have not always come to expect from this source, the notes on the music are well-written, to the point and informative without being totally anodyne. CPO have come in for some stick lately, not least from correspondents to the message board on this site, for the prolix nature of some of the commentaries provided with their discs, and I must admit to having commented unfavourably on some of these myself; but at the same time it is much better that listeners and purchasers are provided with notes to help with their understanding of frequently unfamiliar music than that they should be left with no guidance at all. And yes, CPO’s notes can often provide some unintentional amusement, too – but at least they make an effort, which all too many companies do not, and they are to be commended for that. As I say, the booklet here is everything that one could wish, complete with a couple of illustrations from the stage production which admittedly looks unimpressive in its updating.

The booklet note by Wolfgang Berthold makes out an interested and well-argued case for the psychological depth of Goldmark’s score, making philosophical comparisons with existential theatre; I remain unconvinced that the individual characterisation has the subtlety that the author claims, but it certainly justifies the approach taken to the music in this recording, which goes a long way towards explaining the high reputation the opera enjoyed in Germany during the late nineteenth century. Indeed, for those who would like to investigate further – and all those interested in opera of this period should do so – I would regard this set as an ideal introduction, at once more attractive in sound and more involving in performance than Hungaroton’s pioneering set (quite apart from the price differential!). Most strongly recommended.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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