Dusting off a MasterpieceÖ ìThe Fortunes of King Croesusî by Reinhard Keiser, coming to Opera North, Leeds and Minnesota Opera soon.

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 ñ 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 ñ and his ìKing
î is a good example ñ 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
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 Keiserís 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
CleridaÖwho is loved by Croesusí son Eliates. Only Atisís 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

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 itís a
good choice on the part of director Tim Albery, who originally convinced
Opera Northís General Director Richard Mantle to stage it, to show off
Reinhard Keiserís brilliance as a master of musical invention.

And itís that very brilliance of fecund invention ñ layer upon layer
of musical and dramatic ideas pouring forth with an almost indecent
profligacy ñ 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:
ìItís a wonderful, anarchic, hugely varied piece, suddenly irreverential,
suddenly serenely heroic ñ itís a gift, and a challenge, to present to
todayís audience.î

So how has he done it? He says that they have made some cuts, especially
in the recitative that didnít progress the story to any effect, and a few
arias for the same reason ñ but also moved around a couple of arias that
just didnít feel comfortable where they were and seemed to work better
elsewhere ñ and he hopes that the audience will find it works too. They
have cut some of the peasant and childrenís dancing scenes and relocated
the ìcountry bumpkinî character from the village street to become more of
a courtly old rouÈ attached to the palace. Albery also feels that the
downside of Keiserís fecundity ñ so many ideas, tumbling over each other
it seems ñ 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, itís almost as if we
feel ìoh, thank heavens, yes, letís just enjoy this a bitî. So to that
end, he and Harry Bicket, the musical director, have, on occasion, just
repeated a particularly lovely line of song ñ to give people the chance to
appreciate it before it disappears and the storyís 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 ìMr Baroque Operaî
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 heís sure that once people get to hear the wonderful
richness of melody and orchestration in ìKing Croesusî they too will want
the dust-sheets left off for ever.

Sue Loder © 2007

ìKing Croesusî can be seen at:

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

here for information on U.K. performances

and at Minnesota Opera from 1st March 2008

here for information on Minnesota performances

image_description=Tim Albery
product_title=Above: Tim Albery