In a year where Opera North has presented three early if not obscure works - Dido and Aeneas, Orfeo and now The Fortunes of King Croesus - the latter must be the pinnacle. Reinhard Keiser's work deserves to be placed alongside that of Handel and Purcell; he wrote over sixty operas of which now only eighteen survive. It is suggested that Handel, ten years his junior, often borrowed parts of Keiser's compositions for his own use; this was, of course, in an age when insertion arias were widely used and 'plagiarism' did not have the pejorative connotations that it does today.
Director Tim Albery and conductor Harry Bicket's joint translation transports the opera to around the start of the Second World War. This in essence worked, although the fundamental story could be translated into any century where greed and power have played a part in the development of civilisation; the exception here is that Croesus is given a second chance.
Pride comes before a fall, Croesus is warned, but this advice is not heeded. The wealth and power once awarded to him is taken away. Based on an ancient Greek text, The Proud, Deposed and Reinstated Croesus, the title sums up the story rather well. It premiered in Hamburg in 1730 (revised version from 1711), with this production by Opera North assumed to be the British premiere.
The story at times can be muddled and in parts seems unworkable, thus the plot seems to be lost – or perhaps it just takes too long to progress anywhere fast and appear believable and coherent. However, this should not detract from the energy that the whole ensemble puts into the performance or from the musicianship of Keiser.
Paul Nilon in the title role as Croesus gave a convincing and energetic vocal performance, as did Gillian Keith as Elmira, although at times her voice seemed a little tired and remote. American male soprano Michael Maniaci (winner of the 2003 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions) was really the star of the show, with a beautiful high register and warm legato middle, which can stand one's hair on end, but his stage presence was slightly awkward. The other notable performance came from John Graham-Hall as the cockney Machiavellian bon viveur, Elcius, whose comical witticism and Faginism brought laughter throughout.
Harry Bicket's English translation and direction of the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North was commendable, with the use of a period-sized orchestral ensemble. Sets and costumes by Leslie Travers, gleaming in gold, encapsulated the power and wealth of Croesus.
Opera North has certainly pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Croesus may not be a masterpiece but Keiser's work does merit a more prominent place in the operatic roster, so bravo to Opera North for taking the risk.
The production tours nationwide but with limited performances. This is a co-production with the Minnesota Opera and performances start there on 1 March 2008 with Paul Nilon once again in the title role. Harry Bicket returns to the podium once again, but this time in German with English surtitles. Don't hesitate to catch it if you're able to.
By Paul Dalton
Photos: Richard Moran