One of the most valuable principles in a good musical education is understanding how to play or sing a slow tempo. Any slow tempo needs a great deal of underlying energy that connects and propels the musical line. Otherwise, the experience, especially for the listener, feels like sleepwalking. If La sonnambula herself disregarded this theory, everyone would fall alseep.

The score of Austro-Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark’s The Queen of Sheba (written and premiered in 1875) is apparently filled with an abundance of slow tempos, judging by this performance by the Hungarian State Opera. Ranging from a tepid Allegretto to one foot in the grave, tempos any faster were a rare occurrence in this four-act work. Other than a couple of sprightly ballet sequences, the cast of eight soloists and large chorus was required to maintain a near-largo level of musical speed, which is hard to pull off for three hours straight. 

The staging of this opus, for the occasion of the anniversary of the composer’s death and as a special presentation within the company’s ongoing Hungarian Fest, tested this theory and the theory won — in theory. Long sleepy phrases, with long pauses between them, made for a soporific evening, despite the beauty of Goldmark’s music, some of which verges on the Wagnerian. 

The opera contains a swath of mid-19th century styles, and reveals an early and intriguing foreshadowing of both Samson et Dalila and Tristan und Isolde. The score is filled with lovely orchestral surprises, in addition to stunning arias that are rarely heard. The overture hints at nobility, despair and historical color by using lower strings in viola da gamba-like chordal sonorities, some of which are reprised in the final scene. Thanks to those textural wonders, we knew we were in for tragedy, à la 10th century, with the famous tale of the love triangle of Shulamit (daughter of the High Priest) and Assad (ambassador at the court of Solomon), and the temptress Queen of Sheba who meddles with their impending marriage.   

Vocally, this production featured five outstanding male singers: Zoltán Kelemen as Solomon, Péter Fried as the High Priest, László Boldizsár as Assad, Róbert Rezsnyák as Baal-Hanan, and – even in the one-line role of the Temple Watchman – Ferenc Cserhalmi. Despite the soggy tempos, all sang with mellifluous, ringing sonority, powerful drama and excellent German diction. Boldizsár had the spotlight for much of the score, and he lived up to its demands for brilliant vocalism and poignant characterization of a man torn between two women and who risks eternal condemnation for his choice. 

As the two competing women for Assad’s heart, Eszter Sümegi as Shulamit got off to an uneasy start in the first act’s challenging stratospheric arias but redeemed herself when she later pleads with Solomon to spare Assad from a death sentence, as well as her elegantly expressed moments in which she attempts to rescue Assad in the last scene. Some of the score’s most affecting arias are hers, and Sümegi excels in their dramatic essence. As the Queen, Erika Gál mixed plenty of steely vocalism with femme fatale demeanour early on (she bursts into Shulamit and Assad’s wedding accompanied by flashing lights), but later evinced a modicum of remorse at the unfortunate results of her meddling, even though she still tried to steal Assad from Shulamit when he is dying in the desert.

Adding to the slow-motion feel of the production were the series of beautifully lit and designed tableaux (by Éva Szendrényi) which – while downright dreamy to contemplate visually, especially the filmic opening sequence reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s movie sets, and the later glorious musical wedding service in the grand temple – offered little physical action from the people on stage, even when the music suggested it. The chorus was largely positioned in immovable blocks and the soloists appeared to be up to their own devices during arias and ensembles wherein a lack of logical blocking didn’t help them move energy through the somnolescent tempos and vacant pauses. 

We finally got some much needed blood-flow in the penultimate scene with the ballet dancers’ rather tame bacchanale behind a screen. The music for this had a beguiling circular melody that added considerable vitality and ended with a striking musical flourish which was inexplicably neglected by the choreographer. Much of the stage action was oddly disconnected from what the music was doing; many sequences of refreshingly animated music were relegated to merely underscoring bodies impervious to any musical impulse generated in the pit.

Because this production felt so much like a series of still-life tableaux with blissful musical accompaniment, it came to mind that this score could succeed as an oratorio. The music alone (but perhaps with faster interpretation of the tempos) is certainly worth it.