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Reinhard KEISER (1674-1739)
Dorothea Röschmann (Elmira)
Werner Güra (Atis)
Roman Trekel (Croesus)
Klaus Häger (Orsanes)
Johannes Mannov (Cyrus)
Markus Schäfer (Eliates)
Salome Haller (Clerida)
Kwangchul Youn (Solon)
Graham Pushee (Halimacus)
Brigitte Eisenfeld (Trigesta)
Kurt Azesberger (Elcius)
Johanna Stojkovic (Nerillus)
Jorg Gottschick (Hauptmann)
RIAS Kammerchor, Solistes du Knabenchor Hannover
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
rec. 2000, Teldex Studio Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM931714.16 [3 CDs: 188:09]

Croesus was one of René Jacobs’ first - and, perhaps still, most important- opera recordings. It was seen as a genuine work of musical archaeology, resuscitating a forgotten work by an all-but-forgotten composer, and it worked. It attracted very favourable reviews when it was released, and shortly afterwards (surely no coincidence!) it got its first staging in the UK.

Then, however, indifference set in, and the recording found itself anthologised and forgotten again, frequently appearing in the CD section of your local charity shop. The packaging doesn’t make it immediately clear why Harmonia Mundi have chosen to re-release it now, but it makes for a useful opportunity to reassess it and see whether it still stands up.

I think it does, and that’s principally because Jacobs so clearly believes in it. I am by no means an uncritical admirer of Jacobs, and I find his Mozart operas, which were soon to follow these, unlistenable to in places. However, it’s very refreshing hearing him go to town on a work he believes in so much and, in places, it’s rather exhilarating. That’s principally thanks to the strong advocacy of his orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. I found an unbidden smile cross my face as I listened to them in the overture, bristling with fizzing strings and martial brass and drums which are, nevertheless, fully integrated into the sound picture. They encompass every musical mood you could imagine, from the sweetest love music to the most bracing conflict scenes, and even some pastoral birdsong at the start of Act 2. They’re a credit both to Jacobs and to the opera itself.

His specially selected team of singers have fallen under his spell, too, because they seem to believe in it every bit as much, and they give of their best here. Even if you don’t love the work, there are plenty of aural treats to savour here, and many of them spring from the fact that the principal singers are in no way baroque specialists and are more often heard in much later Romantic repertoire. In the title role Roman Trekel begins as a bluff, assertive baritone, all the more effectively to chart the king’s downfall and rehabilitation; but the principal vocal draw, and the principal required to do most of the heavy lifting, is Dorothea Röschmann. She sings with her creamiest, most sumptuous tone as Elmira, the opera’s principal love interest. She has a lot to do, and she embodies each emotion and every required vocal technique with great skill and consummate beauty. Salome Haller also makes for a very fine love interest as Clerida, but it’s principally Röschmann’s show.

She is pretty much matched by Werner Güra, however, who is at his sweetest, honeyed best as Atis, Croesus’ son. He spends the first act mute, a brave strategy for an opera! But when he learns the power of speech he makes up for it with some lovely music beautifully sung. Again, we’re more familiar with him in Schubert and Schumann, but he brings that honeyed richness to bear here with great success. Klaus Häger is less forthright as Orsanes, but he is sweet of voice and moments like his lyrical second act aria are very appealing. If nothing else, he stands as a useful contrast to Croesus’ more authoritative baritone. As Cyrus, Johannes Mannov is bluffly straightforward, but there’s nothing wrong with that in this company.

Among the smaller roles, Brigitte Eisenfeld is a touch shrill as the servant Trigesta, but she makes a good foil for her mistress, while Johanna Stojkovic is more conventionally beautiful singer, with a lovely top to the voice. Graham Pushee is a slightly hooty countertenor, and Kurt Azesberger is a rather nasal tenor, though that’s not entirely unsuited to his anarchic character. Markus Schäfer has a good deal of presence as Prince Eliates.

Jacobs contributes to the booklet an essay explaining why they chose to revive Croesus over any of Kaiser’s other operas. I must confess that I was convinced. It suffers from the vagaries of most other baroque opere serie with which those of us raised on Wagner and Verdi are, naturally, less patient; but taken on its own terms it’s a worthwhile piece to get to know, and Jacobs and the Harmonia Mundi team pay the piece the great compliment of taking it very seriously. The presentation is up to Harmonia Mundi’s usual high standard, the three discs packaged in a lovely clamshell box, and the disc sleeves feature copious colour photos that illustrate the Berlin Staatsoper production of 1999 that happened in conjunction with this recording. The booklet contains full texts and translations, as well as contextual says. If there is room for another baroque opera in your life then you can investigate with confidence and find your curiosity rewarded; and even if there isn’t, you’ll still find much to enjoy in the beautiful singing.

Simon Thompson

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