Operatic milestone

We are due to get a taste of the Middle East, albeit a musically presented historic slice, straight from Budapest.

August 14, 2019 18:43
3 minute read.
Operatic milestone

‘The Queen of Sheba’. (photo credit: NAGY ATTILA)

We are due to get a taste of the Middle East, albeit a musically presented historic slice, straight from Budapest. The purveyors in question hail from the Hungarian State Opera which will bring Die Königin von Saba – The Queen of Sheba – over here for a grand performance at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv on September 10 at 8 p.m.

There are all sorts of things that make the forthcoming performance poignant, not least that the story is based in this part of the world. It features a love triangle between the feted titular female monarch, a courtier of King Solomon by the name of Assad, and the latter’s betrothed Sulamith. One could also factor in that the music was written by Hungarian-born Jewish 19th-century Viennese composer Karl Goldmark. The opera is Goldmark’s best known work, which after a lengthy gestation period, finally made it to the stage in Vienna in 1875.

The Hungarian company’s general director, Szilveszter Okavócs, says the creation he is bringing here represents a milestone in the history of the operatic discipline, which feeds off all kinds of artistic and cultural strands. “Goldmark combines an extraordinary mix of musical heritage according to his own taste, spices up Wagnerian structures with oriental vibes and Italian cantabile: He creates his own world from his predecessors.’” Okavócs believes the Jewish composer went out on a limb. “In both a historic and a musical sense, at the dawn of verismo (realism) and the height of grand romanticism, he dares to reach back to almost mythological topics of ancient times, which contemporaries considered outdated already. Yet he manages to achieve success with it!”

Okavócs is a big fan of Goldmark’s work and his eclectic approach to life in general. “From a Hungarian standpoint he shows the lovable nature of Hungary throughout most part of the second half of the 19th century, when integration did not mean assimilation. He came from a large, poor, deeply religious German-speaking Jewish family. He achieved world fame while insisting on being a proud Hungarian, even though he only spoke German. In this sense, he shares similarities with Franz Liszt, who did the same in French, until he had learned to speak decent Hungarian.”

THAT MIX of personal experience within a wider cultural and social context informed Goldmark’s choice of thematic baseline for Die Königin von Saba. “His family’s strong Jewish religious tradition is a strong factor, but legend has it that the main inspiration eventually came from the beauty of one of his Sheba-esque students,” explains Okavócs.

While the Hungarian State Opera does its bit in keeping Goldmark’s sumptuous offering in the public eye – there have been in excess of 350 performances in Budapest to date – Okavócs says that logistics and finances keep the work off the beaten path. “Unfortunately, the piece is not popular, but the reason for this is that the opera is not part of the main repertoire, there are very few performances, and the size of the ensemble that is required for the performance. Grandeur, carefully developed details and a highly qualified, large ensemble is obligatory to present every aspect of its beauty. Die Königin von Saba requires one of the largest casts and orchestras within the international opera literature. Only Verdi’s Aida comes close to it.”

The aforementioned practical considerations also inform next month’s venture. “The Tel Aviv production will be a concert version due to scheduling, location and financial reasons, says Okavócs, although he adds there will be some allowances for the operatic source. “The main cast members will appear in costumes, and there are also plans for a projection in order to give a glimpse into the atmosphere of the stage version.”

The September 10 concert may not involve the whole operatic shebang but the audience can still expect plenty of musical fireworks, and on a large scale. With mezzo-soprano Erika Gál in the title role, tenor Boldizsár László as Assad, and soprano Eszter Sümegi as the latter’s principal love interest front and center, all told there will be more than 120 instrumentalists and vocalists on the stage.

The Hungarian company’s general director says he is looking forward to a moving experience, for one and all. “We have never performed an opera in Israel. This will be the first time for me to visit as well, along with many of our cast. It has been a desire for some time now that the work of Goldmark should find its way ‘home.’”

For tickets and more information: 03–692-7777 and Israel-opera.co.il.

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