Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739) spent the bulk of his career
as a composer of 60 operas, primarily for the Oper am
Gänsemarkt of Hamburg, Germany. Although he became
its director in 1703 and briefly held that position, his
preference for that venue lasted throughout his life.
His first operas were composed during the 1690’s and
“Croesus” dates from 1711; however, Keiser thoroughly
revised it in 1730. As the original version did not survive,
I recently heard a recording of this work, under the
baton of René Jacobs (1946 – ). Jacobs’ essay in the
accompanying booklet indicates that the newer version
is richer and more balanced.
The plot concerns Croesus, King of Lydia from 560 to
546 B.C. Despite having material wealth, he learns it
will not ensure his happiness. Although Croesus is
German rather than Italian, this work nevertheless
contains an abundance of the various characters and
intrigues normally found in Opera Seria. The work was
sung in German. Baroque opera flourished in Hamburg
from 1678 to 1738, and the aforementioned elements of
17th Century Venetian opera were present, including
opposing comedic and serious scenes. In comparison with
works by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) Keiser
also used the Aria da capo form throughout the work,
but added variety with duets and trios. In fact, Handel
received some of his earliest operatic foundations while
employed by Keiser as an orchestral violinist in 1704.
Handel was also later influenced by further study and
employment in Italy.
A hallmark of “Croesus” is Keiser’s interesting use of
instrumental combinations and timbres. A prime example
can be found in his orchestration of two oboes, two
bassoons, two cellos and double bass for the rustic
scene in Act II. His innovative instrumental touches are
even apparent in many of the recitative passages. The bass
lines primarily provide harmonic support with few attempts
at polyphony, and a rustic, folksy feel is the result of
these predominantly homophonic textures. In general,
this is fine; however, in light of a running time of more
than three hours and despite the novel instrumental
touches, it became tedious.
Upon learning that René Jacobs was at the helm, I chose
to listen to this project. Like Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676)
and Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759), Reinhard Keiser is
another composer that Jacobs has chosen to champion.
I believe that this is a good thing. For better or worse,
these composers have been relegated to the status of
“footnotes” in Musical History. When listening to obscure
composers like Keiser, I like to be certain that the
recordings have been made by performers who have done
him justice. Otherwise, why bother?
Indeed, Jacobs and company accomplish that and once
again, the Harmonia Mundi label should be commended
for bankrolling one of his “passion projects.” The singers
are mostly German and do a fine job, with standout
performances from Roman Trekel as “Croesus” and a
luscious “Elmira” from Dorothea Röschmann. Even the
lesser roles were impressively sung, including Kwangchul
Youn’s bass portrayal of “Solon.” Countertenor Graham
Pushee’s “Hamalicus” wasn’t as enjoyable. The
RIAS-Kammerchor were good, but used sparingly and
as always, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin provided
a faultless, idiomatic performance.
As expected, the Harmonia Mundi recorded sound
was excellent. René Jacobs did Reinhard Keiser proud
with this recording, and I’m glad that I chose it for my
introduction to his works. Nevertheless, like many
other Baroque operas I’ve heard, I found it tedious,
despite the riches within the score. Different strokes
for different folks, I suppose!