THE most obvious reason why Goldmark’s “Ko-nigin von Saba” should be seen and heard with pleasure lies in its book and scenic investiture. Thoughtfully considered the book is not one of great worth, but in the handling of things which give pleasure to the superficial observer it is admirable. In the first place it presents a dramatic story which is rational ; which strongly enlists the interest if not the sympathies of the observer ; which is un-hackneyed ; which abounds with imposing spectacles with which the imagination of childhood already had made play, that are not only intrinsically brilliant and fascinating but occur as necessary adjuncts of the story. Viewed from its ethical side and considered with reference to the sources whence its elements sprang, it falls under a considerable measure of condemnation, as will more plainly appear after its incidents have been rehearsed.
The title of the opera indicates that the Biblical story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon had been drawn on for the plot. This is true, but only in a slight degree. Sheba’s Queen comes to Solomon in the opera, but that is the end of the draft on the Scriptural legend so far as she is concerned. Sulamith, who figures in the drama, owes her name to the Canticles, from which it was borrowed by the librettist, but no element of her character nor any of the incidents in which she is involved. The “Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” contributes a few lines of poetry to the book, and a ritualistic service which is celebrated in the temple finds its original text in the opening verses of Psalms lxvii and cxvii, but with this I have enumerated all that the opera owes to the Bible. It is not a Biblical opera, in the degree that Méhul’s “Joseph,” Rossini’s “Moses,” or Rubinstein’s “Maccabees” is Biblical, to say nothing of Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila.” Solomon’s magnificent reign and marvellous wisdom, which contribute a few factors to the sum of the production, belong to profane as well as to sacred history and it will be found most agreeable to deeply rooted preconceptions to think of some other than the Scriptural Solomon as the prototype of the Solomon of Mosenthal and Goldmark, who, at the best, is a sorry sort of sentimentalist. The local color has been borrowed from the old story ; the dramatic motive comes plainly from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.”
Assad, a favorite courtier, is sent by Solomon to extend greetings and a welcome to the Queen of Sheba, who is on the way to visit the king, whose fame for wealth and wisdom has reached her ears in far Arabia. Assad is the type (though a milk-andwatery one, it must be confessed) of manhood struggling between the things that are of the earth and the things which are of heaven between a gross, sensual passion and a pure, exalting love. He is betrothed to Sulamith, the daughter of the High Priest of the temple, who awaits his return from Solomon’s palace and leads her companions in songs of gladness. Assad meets the Queen at Gath, per-forms his mission, and sets out to return, but, exhausted by the heat of the day, enters the forest on Mount Lebanon and lies down on a bank of moss to rest. There the sound of plashing waters arrests his ear. He seeks the cause of the grateful noise and comes upon a transportingly beautiful woman bathing. The nymph, finding herself observed, does not, like another Diana, cause the death of her admirer, but discloses herself to be a veritable Wagnerian Venus. She clips him in her arms and he falls at her feet ; but a reed rustles and the charmer flees. These incidents we do not see. They precede the opening of the opera, and we learn of them from Assad’s narration. Assad returns to Jerusalem, where, conscience stricken, he seeks to avoid his chaste bride. To Solomon, however, he confesses his adventure, and the king sets the morrow as his wedding day with Sulamith.
The Queen of Sheba arrives, and when she raises her veil, ostensibly to show unto Solomon the first view of her features that mortal man has ever had vouchsafed him, Assad recognizes the heroine of his adventure in the woods on Lebanon. His mind is in a maze ; bewilderingly he addresses her, and haughtily he is repulsed. But the woman has felt the dart no less than Assad; she seeks him at night in the palace garden, whither she had gone to brood over her love and the loss which threatens her on the morrow, and the luring song of her slave draws him again into her arms.
Before the altar in the temple, just as Assad is about to pronounce the words which are to bind him to Sulamith, she confronts him again, on the specious pretext that she brings gifts for the bride. Assad again addresses her. Again he is denied. Delirium seizes upon his brain ; he loudly proclaims the Queen as the goddess of his devotion. The people are panic-stricken at the sacrilege and rush from the temple ; the priests cry anathema ; Sulamith be-moans her fate ; Solomon essays words of comfort ; the High Priest intercedes with heaven ; the soldiery, led by Baal-Hanan, overseer of the palace, enter to lead the profaner to death. Now Solomon claims the right to fix his punishment. The Queen, fearful that her prey may escape her, begs his life as a boon, but Solomon rejects her appeal ; Assad must work out his salvation by overcoming temptation and mastering his wicked passion. Sulamith approaches amid the wailings of her companions. She is about to enter a retreat on the edge of the Syrian desert, but she, too, prays for the life of Assad. Solomon, in a prophetic ecstasy, foretells Assad’s deliverance from sin and in a vision sees a meeting between him and his pure love under a palm tree in the desert. Assad is banished to the sandy waste ; there a simoom sweeps down upon him ; he falls at the foot of a lonely palm to die, after calling on Sulamith with his fleeting breath. She comes with her wailing maidens, sees the fulfilment of Solomon’s prophecy, and Assad dies in her arms. “Thy beloved is thine, in love’s eternal realm,” sing the maidens, while a mirage shows the wicked Queen, with her caravan of camels and elephants, returning to her home.
The parallel between this story and the immeasurably more poetical and beautiful one of “Tannhäuser” is apparent to half an eye. Sulamith is Elizabeth, the Queen is Venus, Assad is Tannha user, Solomon is Wolfram von Eschenbach. The ethical force of the drama it has some, though very little was weakened at the performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York by the excision from the last act of a scene in which the Queen attempts to persuade Assad to go with her to Arabia. Now Assad rises superior to his grosser nature and drives the temptress away, thus performing the saving act demanded by Solomon.
Herr Mosenthal, who made the libretto of “Die Konigin von Saba,” treated this material, not with great poetic skill, but with a cunning appreciation of the opportunities which it offers for dramatic effect. The opera opens with a gorgeous picture of the interior of Solomon’s palace, decked in honor of the coming guest. There is an air of joyous expectancy over everything. Sulamith’s entrance introduces the element of female charm to brighten the brilliancy of the picture, and her bridal song in which the refrain is an excerpt from the Canticles, “Thy beloved is thine, who feeds among the roses” enables the composer to indulge his strong predilection and fecund gift for Oriental melody. The action hurries to a thrilling climax. One glittering pageant treads on the heels of another, each more gorgeous and resplendent than the last, until the stage, set to represent a fantastical hall with a bewildering vista of carved columns, golden lions, and rich draperies, is filled with such a kaleidoscopic mass of colors and groupings as only an Oriental mind could conceive. Finally all the preceding strokes are eclipsed by the coming of the Queen. But no time is lost ; the spectacle does not make the action halt for a moment. Sheba makes her gifts and uncovers her face, and at once we are confronted by the tragical element, and the action rushes on toward its legitimate and mournful end.
In this ingenious blending of play and spectacle one rare opportunity after another is presented to the composer. Sulamith’s epithalamium, Assad’s narrative, the choral greeting to the Queen, the fateful recognition all these things are made for music of the inspiring, swelling, passionate kind. In the second act, the Queen’s monologue, her duet with Assad, and, most striking of all, the unaccompanied bit of singing with which Astaroth lures Assad into the presence of the Queen, who is hiding in the shadow of broad-leaved palms behind a running fountain a melodic phrase saturated with the mystical color of the East these are gifts of the rarest kind to the composer, which he has enriched to give them in turn to the public. That relief from their stress of passion is necessary is not forgotten, but is provided in the ballet music and the solemn ceremonial in the temple, which takes place amid surroundings that call into active operation one’s child-hood fancies touching the sacred fane on Mount Moriah and the pompous liturgical functions of which it was the theatre.
Goldmark’s music is highly spiced. He was an eclectic, and his first aim seems to have been to give the drama a tonal investiture which should be in keeping with its character, external as well as internal. At times his music rushes along like A lava stream of passion, every measure pulsating with eager, excited, and exciting life. He revels in instrumental color. The language of his orchestra is as glowing as the poetry attributed to the royal poet whom his operatic story celebrates. Many composers before him made use of Oriental cadences, rhythms, and idioms, but to none do they seem to have come so like native language as to Goldmark. It is romantic music, against which the strongest objection that can be urged is that it is so unvaryingly stimulated that it wearies the mind and makes the listener long for a change to a fresher and healthier musical atmosphere.