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Reinhard KEISER (1674 - 1739): Pomona

Magdalene Harer (Vertumnus), Melanie Hirsch (Pomona), Doerthe Maria Sandmann (Flora), soprano; Olivia Vermeulen (Ceres), mezzo-soprano; Jan Kobow (Jasion, Jupiter), Julian Podger (Mercurius), Knut Schoch (Zephyrus), tenor; Jörg Gottschick (Vulcanus), Raimonds Spogis (Bacchus), baritone
Capella Orlandi Bremen
Dir: Thomas Ihlenfeldt

rec: Sept 6 - 11, 2010, Berlin, Siemensvilla
CPO - 777 659-2 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (2.03'23")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Birgit Bahr, Hariett Herrle, recorder, oboe; Dagmar Valentová, Jirina Strynclová, violin; Klaus Bona, viola; James Bush, cello; Györgyi Farkas, bassoon; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone, guitar; Mark Nordstrand, harpsichord, organ

One of the main features of the seconda prattica which emerged in the early 17th century in Italy was the birth of opera. For some decades this form of entertainment was confined to the courts of aristocrats in cities like Mantua and Florence. When it reached Venice it gradually developed into a major event during the carnival season. Monteverdi produced his last great operas in the early 1740s and his successor Francesco Cavalli was to become the major opera composer in Venice.

Opera was also embraced elsewhere in Europe, but almost always it remained a preoccupation of the aristocracy. In 1678 the first public opera house in Germany opened, known as the Oper (or Theater) am Gänsemarkt. Some famous names are connected to it, such as Johann Mattheson, Reinhard Keiser and Georg Philipp Telemann. George Frideric Handel's first opera Almira was performed there in 1704. Three further operas would follow which are either completely lost or have only survived in fragmentary form. One of the main figures at the Hamburg opera scene before the arrival of Telemann was Reinhard Keiser.

He was born in Teuchern, near Weissenfels, where his father acted as organist. In 1685 Keiser became a pupil at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where he received his musical education from Johann Schelle and probably also Johann Kuhnau. According to Johann Mattheson Keiser developed as a composer mainly under the influence of the Italian music he studied. His first experiences as an opera composer were in Braunschweig, and somewhat later in Hamburg where in 1696 or 1697 he became director of the Theater am Gänsemarkt as the successor to Johann Sigismund Kusser. From 1703 Keiser was the dominating composer of operas in Hamburg, until 1718 when the Opera went bankrupt. An attempt was made to make a restart, but that didn't lead Keiser to retain his former glory. He tried to find a job as Kapellmeister at several places, but to no avail. When Telemann was becoming director of the Opera Keiser had new chances of composing operas. But that ended after some years because of another crisis in the Opera. In 1728 Keiser succeeded Johann Mattheson as Kantor of Hamburg Cathedral.

This description of the financial difficulties of the Hamburg Opera is certainly not exhaustive. In fact, the history of the Opera is dominated by almost perennial financial crises. Keiser had to face the first in 1703 immediately after becoming one of the managers. In 1704 the theatre was temporarily closed. It seems likely that this inspired Keiser to aim for a position as Kapellmeister at the court of Denmark. Sieg der fruchtbaren Pomona, first performed in 1702, was revived in 1703 and followed by three further operas which were all dedicated to the Danish royal house.

Linking a work for the stage to a foreign state or a political event was quite common in Hamburg. As Thomas Ihlenfeldt writes in his liner-notes: "Numerous operas were dedicated to occasions outside Hamburg such as coronations of kings, victory celebrations, the birth of an heir to the throne, and weddings and birthdays in royal houses. It was expected that the Hamburg residents of the states concerned would properly celebrate such events in what was the empire's second-largest city after Vienna. The councilman Gerhard Schott, the founder of the Hamburg Opera and its director for many years, capitalized on these circumstances. He offered foreign residents the opportunity to celebrate these events in the form of festive operas. They of course had to cover the costs accruing to these productions." Pomona received two performances in 1702 for which the Danish resident Hans Statius von Hagedorn had "to reach deep into his pockets", which he didn't fail to report in detail to the Danish Chancellor. The opera had been written at the occasion of the birthday of the Danish King, Frederick IV, which explains the extended eulogy to the King and Queen in the last scene.

The opera is different from what one may expect. According to Ihlenfeldt this is a virtue rather than a drawback. "Reinhard Keiser's Pomona forms the ideal introduction to the world of the German-language baroque opera. A few deities come together to participate in a contest ultimately to be decided by Jupiter, the father of the gods. And that's it! No intricate plot, no complicated character groupings (A loves B, B loves C, C loves A), and no exceptional length wearying the public." Having heard many operas with an "intricate plot" - often on the verge of complete incomprehensibility - I can sympathize with his view. The result is a highly entertaining work which can be enjoyed without having to turn time and again to the synopsis to check who is who and what is going on.

The plot is pretty simple and is summarized by the subtitle: "Dispute of the Four Seasons". Flora, Ceres, Pomona, Vulcan and Bacchus dispute which of the four seasons is the best. Pomona recommends the autumn, which she compares with marriage. And since Jupiter whose task it is to proclaim the victor, not only praises Frederick, but also his wife Louise and their marriage, and compares them with Pomona and her husband Vertumnus, the autumn is chosen and the winner is Pomona.

The charm of this work is twofold. First, the libretto contains humorous elements, especially in the scenes 12 to 17, when the gods gather and quarrel. Add to this the often ironic comments from Mercury, who acts as a sort of games master and calls the gods to order. Second, Keiser's setting is very entertaining and beautiful. Throughout the work there are many nice arias which are usually relatively short, but very attractive, also due to the differentiated instrumental scoring. The line-up is one to a part: two recorders or oboes, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello, theorbo or guitar and harpsichord or organ. The instruments have independent parts or play colla parte, either solo or in pairs. Keiser also deploys them sensibly and to good effect, such as two oboes and bassoon in an aria of Vulcan, the god of fire and the forge. The instrumental parts are given excellent performances by members of the Capella Orlandi Bremen.

The vocal cast has no weaknesses. Julian Podger is Mercury, and portrays his character just right, without exaggeration. Jan Kobow gives a perfect account of the role of Jupiter. Melanie Hirsch is excellent as Pomona, and I also would like to mention Raimonds Spogis as Bacchus and Jörg Gottschick as Vulcanus.

This is an important production which convinces in every respect and shows that Reinhard Keiser was a very good composer. A work like this only confirms that it is highly regrettable that so much of his oeuvre has been lost.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Jörg Gottschick
Magdalene Harer
Melanie Hirsch
Doerthe Maria Sandmann
Knut Schoch
Olivia Vermeulen

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