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Dusting off a Masterpiece… “The Fortunes of King Croesus” by Reinhard Keiser, coming to Opera North, Leeds and Minnesota Opera soon.

Masterpiece? The term rather depends on whether the artist in question was indeed a master and it might come as a surprise to learn that this little-known composer of the brief, but significant, German Baroque Opera period is regarded by many as just that.

Above: Tim Albery


We can be forgiven today for not knowing much about either Keiser or his contemporaries in the jigsaw of small Germanic states of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Their work was very localised in terms of audiences, and specific to their towns and townspeople, and they more often than not composed for the German language, not the more widely accepted Italian or French. However, musically, they were perfectly aware of, and amenable to, some of the more southern influences of the times. They also occasionally included in their midst up and coming young composers on the way to greater things – Handel and Telemann to name but two. Indeed a young Handel absorbed many influences from Keiser, acknowledged in his day as the greatest living composer in Germany.

What makes Keiser (1674-1739) so special – and his “King Croesus” is a good example – is that he was a master of variety, expression and colour, and not only vocally. He liked nothing more than arranging the instrumental accompaniments in complex layers of sonority, giving his fast-paced vocal numbers a dizzying variety of effects. He wrote Croesus in 1711 when no longer in charge of the Hamburg opera house, but still writing for it, and returned to the piece revising it extensively (possibly for the better, although the original is lost) in 1730, making full use of the latest dramatic and musical ideas. He knew his audience. Not for them the epidemic sweeping the rest of Europe of strict Italian opera seria format, the rigid recitative-da capo aria-recitative sung by starry castrati and sopranos who could, literally, call the tune. The German tradition was much more eclectic and country-based, full of traditional dance rhythms and structures. The townspeople of Keiser’s time liked to hear tunes and see characters that reminded them of their folk traditions (even if they had long left the fields for more lucrative merchandising), they liked a bit of broad comedy, and wanted to know that all would come good in the end. On top of that, their rather grim Lutheran Church elders also required morality and ethics, for without that they could make big trouble for the local opera houses of the time.

The story of King Croesus as told by Keiser is typical of its period: that is to say, convoluted. The mighty Croesus of Lydia is proud but soon humbled by his enemy King Cyrus, as predicted by the sage Solon. His son, Atis, is dumb (at least in Act 1) but is in love with Elmira, Princess of Media. She is loved by the treacherous Orsanes, who is pursued in turn by Princess Clerida…who is loved by Croesus’ son Eliates. Only Atis’s servant Elcius (the comic character) is immune to these eternal triangles, and prefers the pleasures of the table. After war, imprisonment, concealed identities, betrayal and lessons learnt, we emerge at the end into the light of a wiser and more content court, with joy and happiness apparently unconfined.

By the time Keiser revised the version of King Croesus we will see in Leeds and Minnesota, both his career and the German Opera as a working entity were soon to disappear beneath the flood of Italian works, so it’s a good choice on the part of director Tim Albery, who originally convinced Opera North’s General Director Richard Mantle to stage it, to show off Reinhard Keiser’s brilliance as a master of musical invention.

And it’s that very brilliance of fecund invention – layer upon layer of musical and dramatic ideas pouring forth with an almost indecent profligacy – that Tim Albery has had to both tame and barber to fit our modern sensibilities, and expectations. Asking him to describe his attraction to this piece brought forth an equally profligate flow of enthusiasm: “It’s a wonderful, anarchic, hugely varied piece, suddenly irreverential, suddenly serenely heroic – it’s a gift, and a challenge, to present to today’s audience.”

So how has he done it? He says that they have made some cuts, especially in the recitative that didn’t progress the story to any effect, and a few arias for the same reason – but also moved around a couple of arias that just didn’t feel comfortable where they were and seemed to work better elsewhere – and he hopes that the audience will find it works too. They have cut some of the peasant and children’s dancing scenes and relocated the “country bumpkin” character from the village street to become more of a courtly old roué attached to the palace. Albery also feels that the downside of Keiser’s fecundity – so many ideas, tumbling over each other it seems – is that the opera can provoke a feeling of almost breathlessness as we the audience try to keep up. So when Keiser does slow the pace, and gives a beautiful melody space to expand and evolve, it’s almost as if we feel “oh, thank heavens, yes, let’s just enjoy this a bit”. So to that end, he and Harry Bicket, the musical director, have, on occasion, just repeated a particularly lovely line of song – to give people the chance to appreciate it before it disappears and the story’s off again. At Opera North, we will hear the work sung in English, the work of Albery himself, although in Minnesota it will be sung in the original German.

Helping Albery achieve this alchemy of adaptation and clarification in Leeds is an impressive musical line-up. As well as “Mr Baroque Opera” himself, Harry Bicket, there is a top flight cast of actor-singers including British tenor Paul Nilon in the title role, young Canadian soprano Gillian Keith, the extraordinary, exciting American male soprano Michael Maniaci in the role of Prince Atis, and Henry Waddington as Cyrus.

Will this production finally bring Keiser back to popularity? Albery certainly hopes so and he’s sure that once people get to hear the wonderful richness of melody and orchestration in “King Croesus” they too will want the dust-sheets left off for ever.

Sue Loder © 2007

“King Croesus” can be seen at:

The Grand Theatre, Leeds on 17th & 20th Oct and 7th &10th Nov 2007
The Theatre Royal, Nottingham on 27th Oct
The Lowry, Salford Quays, on 17th Nov

[Click here for information on U.K. performances.]

and at Minnesota Opera from 1st March 2008

[Click here for information on Minnesota performances.]

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