The poverty-stricken composer toiling in theatre orchestras was 45 years old when the path to the stage opened up for him, and international recognition soon followed. During his lifetime, Die Königin von Saba was performed in 30 opera houses and nine languages. The exotic plot addresses the loss of the ego and the human vulnerability to passion, which Solomon wisely advises can only be reacquired through one's own strength. As the work is an infrequent guest in opera houses and on concert stages, it is a source of great pleasure and excitement to be able to encounter the remarkable music, characterised by unbridled fantasy and a bold harmonic world, again in Müpa Budapest's Béla Bartók National Concert Hall.
A hall in Solomon's palace
Sulamith, the daughter of the High Priest, is anxiously awaiting the return of her fiancé, Assad, whom King Solomon has ordered to prepare the way for the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon's palace. The young couple is scheduled to be married the next day. Assad returns to the palace and informs King Solomon that under the shade of the cedars of Lebanon, he fell in love with a mysterious woman and now no longer loves Sulamith. Solomon advises Assad not to pursue this infatuation, but instead to stick with his previous decision and marry Sulamith.
The Queen of Sheba arrives at the palace at the head of her retinue. As she lifts her veil to greet the king, Assad sees that she was the mysterious lady whom he met on his journey. But the queen acts as though they had never met, to the young man's distress. The king arranges for a reception to be held in the queen's honour.
The garden of the palace, night
The Queen of Sheba slips away from the festivites and comes out into the garden. She is thinking about Assad's impending marriage when her servant, Astaroth, tells her that Assad is nearby and then goes on, with the "magic sounds" of seductive Oriental melodies, to lure the young man to her mistress. A heated discussion begins between Assad and the queen, culminating in a passionate embrace. Their assignation is interrupted by the Guardian of the Temple when he calls the children of Israel to their dawn prayer.
The wedding party assembles. Assad and Sulamith's ceremony is almost finished when the Queen of Sheba appears to present her wedding gift. The queen continues to treat the young man as a stranger, which makes him lose his head entirely. He commits blasphemy by calling the queen his god. The ensuing commotion brings the wedding vows to an end, and Assad is led off to receive a suitable punishment, which in all likelihood will be death.
The court of King Solomon
The festivities organised in honour of the Queen of Sheba's visit continue with a ballet. The queen is worried about Assad's fate and asks Solomon to pardon him. The king refuses, and the queen departs planning revenge. Sulamith and her companions enter the court singing a sorrowful song. She has now dedicated her life to God alone, but before departing on her way, begs for Assad's life. Solomon responds with a mysterious prophecy in which he foretells Sulamith's future. The upset girl leaves the palace and heads for the desert to lament her fate.
In the desert
Solomon has shown clemency: Assad's death sentence has been commuted to banishment. The Queen of Sheba finds the youth in the vicinity of Sulamith's desert dwelling and attempts to convince him to go with her. But Assad resists the temptation and repents of his deed, hoping him that death will bring him redemption for his sin against God. As he prays for Sulamith, he is caught in a savage sandstorm. When the girl and her companions happen to find him, he is barely alive. The man asks for his love's forgiveness, which he receives before dying in the arms of his beloved.