I need to eat my words—or at least choke on them a little. In the current edition of Mpls.St.Paul magazine, I questioned Minnesota Opera’s decision to stage the American premiere of Reinhard Keiser’s The Fortunes of King Croesus. It’s an obscure opera, I argued, hardly a great work, the music isn’t particularly sophisticated, and there are probably some good reasons why it’s been relegated to the dustbin of operatic history. But in performance, the work turns out to be unexpectedly engaging, if not exactly a masterpiece.
When the final version of Croesus premiered in 1730, Keiser was a major figure of the early German Baroque. He was an influence on the young Handel. But he was provincial, writing for the opera house in Hamburg, which had its own style. He did not subscribe to the developing international style of opera seria that Handel championed. So in the sweep of history, he was forgotten, somewhat unfairly as it turns out.
Ostensibly, the story is that of the myth of Croesus, King of Lydia, a wealthy and arrogant ruler who is defeated in battle by Cyrus, the King of Persia, and humbled. The primary focus, though, is on his son Atis and the love pentagon that surrounds him. This labyrinthine plot is typical of Baroque opera: Atis and Elmira love each other, but she is pursued by Orsanes, who later tries to stage a coup. He is loved by Clerida, who is in turn loved by Eliates, who Croesus leaves in charge when he goes off to war. As is typical of the Baroque, everything ends on a happy note, however implausibly.
This is certainly pleasant music, full of many clever and interesting moments. But while sounding Handelian, Keiser was not the musical dramatist that Handel was and the work suffers as a result, with long stretches proving tedious. The score has been significantly cut, but it could have been tightened even further.
The performances made as strong a case as possible for the opera. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was in the pit, rather than the Minnesota Opera’s usual pick-up orchestra, and it made a difference. SPCO played the intricate score with clarity and precision, not to mention a real sense of the period style. Conductor Harry Bicket led masterfully.
Of the singers, the Elmira of Susanna Phillips was the standout. She had an attractive soprano and a dazzling facility for coloratura. She was also a powerful actress, becoming the emotional center of the opera and giving the frequently superficial music real heart.
The novelty of the opera is that Atis is mute for much of the first act, until the shock of seeing his father captured restores his voice. Vale Rideout was a strong actor throughout, a convincingly ardent lover. When he sang, he revealed a warm and romantic tenor.
As Orsanes, baritone Brian Leehuber was also quite compelling, following up his highly praised performance as Tom Joad in last season's world premiere of The Grapes of Wrath. Once again, he commanded the stage, both vocally and dramatically.
For being the title character, Croesus had remarkably little stage time. But tenor Paul Nilon made the most of it. He convincingly portrayed the character’s transformation, making his emerging humanity truly moving.
The secondary romantic couple was less successful. As Clerida, soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine proved musically faceless, unable to bring the music to life. And tenor Christian Reinhart had neither the voice nor the bearing to be convincing as the man Croesus would leave in charge in his absence.
As the stock comic servants, Dan Dressen and Andrea Coleman played the cynical, worldly-wise pair with tongue-in-cheek delight. They were underused.
This production was a big hit when it first premiered at Opera North in England, but to my eyes, it let the singers down. Director Tim Albery created individual moments that were quite effective, but he didn’t seem to have any overall dramatic concept to tie all those moments together. Too often, the singers were left stranded in long static stretches. And the truly dramatic moment of Atis finding his voice was completely passed over.
The production seemed to be set in the 1930s, with the Persians as the fascists and Cyrus costumed as Mussolini, which was problematic when it came to the happy ending. That speaks to the lack of visual as well as dramatic coherence. Leslie Travers’s costumes were spectacular, but seemed more interested in spectacle than in conveying dramatic meaning. (Elmira’s outfit was particularly ineffective, making her look more dowdy and matronly than a romantic heroine should.) His sets were likewise striking, but impractical. Strewing the stage with the fuselage of Croesus’s downed airplane created an obstacle course for the singers.
There were plenty of cheers, but this was the first Minnesota Opera production I can recall that did not get a standing ovation. That is, I think, telling of the audience’s reaction to this operatic novelty, and it matches my reaction. The experience was, at best, a qualified success.