Keiser (Der) geliebte Adonis 'The Beloved Adonis)

A colourful opera from a neglected composer

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Keiser (Der) geliebte Adonis 'The Beloved Adonis)

  • (Der) geliebte Adonis

Keiser is chiefly remembered for his influence on Handel; but he was also rather a good composer himself. He directed the famous Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt on and off from 1696­97 to 1718 and was in charge when in 1703 a young violinist and harpsichord player from Halle applied for work there. His operas have countless echoes in Handel’s music over the years‚ mostly in the form of brief phrases reproduced – often a passage of Keiser’s nestled in Handel’s memory‚ to be called up through some specific associative stimulus. Der geliebte Adonis is in fact published in a facsimile series called ‘Handel Sources’‚ whose eagle­eyed editor has detected traces of four numbers in some ten Handel works.
Adonis was written in 1697‚ when Keiser was 23. Like most German (and Italian) operas of the time‚ it has a large number of short arias‚ some 60 in all; its telling of the tale of Venus and Adonis is interspersed with comments from the wryly comic‚ slightly cynical Gelon. On listening to it you may feel‚ with these numerous brief arias‚ most of them made up of rather short phrases and thinly scored (many with only continuo accompaniment)‚ and often dominated by their orchestral figuration‚ that the emotions are not very deeply explored and the characters little differentiated.
Yet there is a great deal of variety‚ and much ingenuity‚ especially in the astonishingly colourful orchestration. And in the Third Act Keiser is much more expansive: it essentially consists of two big scenes‚ the first a charming series of disquisitions on love from the female characters set as a large suite of dance songs (Courante‚ Sarabande‚ Menuet‚ Bourrée‚ Menuet again‚ Gavotte‚ Gigue). While this is in progress‚ Adonis is engaged in his final‚ fatal hunt – he is gored by the jealous Mars‚ disguised as a wild boar – and the second is a mourning scene‚ led by Philistus in a traditional ground­bass lament and taken up by the several females who loved him‚ with Venus’s contribution forming the climax. There are other interesting features‚ among them a number of duets or arias and some larger ensembles. There are dances‚ markedly French in manner. There is a charming sleep aria and a coruscating ‘aria furiosa’. The very first number‚ where Venus’s floating line is accompanied by soft recorders and pizzicato strings‚ is particularly beguiling.
The performance here‚ a live recording which betrays few signs of its origin‚ follows Keiser’s score faithfully‚ although a certain amount of discretion is exercised over instrumentation; I thought the use of the bassoon as the principal sustaining continuo instrument excessive‚ and wished that less used had been made of harp‚ chitarrone and guitar in the continuo ensemble. Thomas Ihlenfeldt paces the work with good judgement.
Among the cast Marietta Zumbült makes an appealing Venus‚ with her soft and rounded voice; there is some graceful singing from Susanne Rydén as Eumene and rather more variable singing (sometimes delicate but sometimes coarse) from the Dryante‚ Mona Spägele. Ralf Popken is a polished Adonis and Philistus’s music is elegantly done by Jan Kobow. Knut Schoch deals with Gelon’s slightly tiresome ditties with touches of wit and Raimonds Spogis thunders appropriately as Mars. There are no outstanding performances‚ for the music offers no real scope for that. But it is all very competently done. The acoustic is rather hollow and cloudy.
Dabringhaus und Grimm’s single­disc Keiser issue makes pleasant listening and will perhaps be a sufficient sample of his style for some readers. The extracts come from four of the operas included in the ‘Handel Sources’ series‚ deftly selected to show the expressive range of Keiser’s music‚ and the qualities of Elisabeth Scholl’s voice. The performances are‚ however‚ done on a chamber­music scale‚ one to a part‚ which is not how Keiser’s operatic music is intended. Nevertheless‚ Scholl’s singing gives a good deal of pleasure‚ in her bright and pointed reading of the first Claudius aria‚ in the big‚ powerful dramatic scene from Nebucadnezar‚ in the jolly and jubilant piece from La forza della virtù and in the three excerpts from Adonis‚ which are done with some delicacy. There is some fairly florid music here most of which she dispatches with assurance. The group La Ricordanza play an overture and several dances in clean and rhythmic fashion with nice attention to detail – again the French influence in marked‚ especially in La forza‚ where there are also some reminders of Purcell. But of course it is the foreshadowings of Handel that are the most striking. The Trio Sonata is a charming piece‚ with its transparent texture of flute and viola d’amore; the concerto is rather less interesting – we are told it is generally ascribed to Telemann (it was used within a Keiser opera when Telemann was in charge at the opera house) but I don’t believe it – it doesn’t have the faintest whiff of his very characteristic style.

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