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Now at last we have a chance to savour his music, for René Jacobs -- who built up a considerable reputation as a tenor specialising in Renaissance and Baroque music, and subsequently became a music-theatre director honoured for the equilibrium he achieved between authenticity and musical flair addressed to the world-as-it-is -- has performed (at Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin in 1999), and has now recorded, one of Keiser's seemingly innumerable operas with a brilliant German cast and his own Berlin Alte Musik group, to which we are already indebted for many renovative rediscoveries.

Croesus (c) 2000 harmonia mundi

It must have been a tricky task to decide which opera, from Keiser's cornucopia, to select for resuscitation. Jacobs says that he chose Croesus because the universality of its theme ensures continuing topicality. Since its hero is a legendarily rich man, it involves the material power that unlimited wealth may imbue man with, while at the same time revealing the hollowness of materiality's pretence.

Keiser wrote all his operas for the Hambourg Staatsoper, and was adept at re-creating Italianate conventions in terms congenial to his own society. This meant that he modelled his operas on Venetian traditions which were 'up to the minute' in allowing for incipiently democratic impulses, thereby admitting that man's attempts to play God were doomed to failure. The realities of private passions were always likely to be at odds with public presumptions; the intrusion of 'low' types such as servants might at any moment prick the bubbles of pomp and circumstance, the more so if, as here, an originally Italian libretto were translated into vernacular German. The German librettist, Lukas von Bostel, was a minor poet of some talent. Jacobs bolsters realism by sometimes substituting natural male voices for Keiser's castrati; the performers are so adept, and Jacobs's direction so musically intelligent, that the balance between what was and what can still be sounds totally convincing.

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Copyright © 14 April 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK







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