Opera companies that venture outside the narrow bag of pieces called “the repertoire” deserve a pat on the back, but they proceed at their peril. The works that posterity has cast by the wayside are there for a reason: they lack the sustained ability to command attention. In that context, the decision by Opera North, in league with the Minnesota Opera, to unearth a work by Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739) is as courageous as it is potentially foolhardy. Even in his lifetime Keiser was little known beyond Hamburg and Brunswick. He wrote nearly as many operas as the years he lived. That he is said to have influenced Handel is a tenuous claim to fame.
So what should we make of Der hochmütige, gestürtzte, und wieder erhabene Croesus (The Proud, Fallen and Again Elevated Croesus)? Music historians agree it was Keiser’s best effort. It recalls the life of a king so drunk with power that he thinks he is invincible. Defeated in battle and condemned to death, he is saved by a succession of interventions and restored to power. That last bit is very ancien régime: rulers who screw up don’t usually get a second chance.
All very salutary – but now we come to the difficult bit. Croesus himself is swamped by the myriad subplots that the opera scatters in its path. Then there’s Keiser’s music, a sub-Telemannesque succession of numbers that, even if brilliantly cast, would seem like hard work.
Opera North has tried to lighten the load by commissioning a jokey translation from the director Tim Albery. But a dog is a dog, and King Croesus is beyond redemption. Albery’s low-budget staging, designed by Leslie Travers and Thomas Hase, sets the action in the late days of empire, circa 1935. Décor amounts to nothing more than a raked platform, littered with model fighter aircraft. Whether by accident or design, the show revolves around three characters who hog the action. Gillian Keith (Elmira), Michael Maniaci (Atis) and John Graham-Hall (Elcius) make the most of their chances, while Harry Bicket turns Opera North’s orchestra into a neat little baroque band.