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Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, July 2009

Reinhard Keiser (1674–1739), a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, was a prolific composer notable for his productions at the Theater am Gäsemarkt in Hamburg. Opera was no longer confined to the royal courts, but had become popular with the citizenry; and the business class saw an opportunity to increase their city’s prestige and thereby an increase in trade. Even the opera house was run for profit.

Bach never composed an opera, but if he had it probably would have sounded very much like Fredegunda without the academic forms, but even more opportunities for vocal display. And do the singers ever display! Coloratura decorations galore. And the orchestra too!

A bubbling “Sonata” (overture) with clucking bassoon and acidic period instrument strings gets the opera off to a happy start. But then the plot takes over. I won’t even try to explain it other than to say Fredegunda’s machinations to gain the throne go awry and she exits gracefully as promised. So forget about the plot and just enjoy the music. The hard-working bassoon should be given extra pay. He plays almost continuously! The harpsichord adds its twinkling light touch, and the theorbo strums beautifully.

The title role is quite taxing. Pavlikova manages superbly, with bright and chipper tone. Koch is more mellow than Pavlikova. Stuber’s soprano is even better, with her semivibratoless sound. Kranebitter’s baritone is harshly nasal, tenorial and irritating. Matsubara has a better time, sounding right jolly. Just listen to Wendt in his Act 2 aria ‘Zur Rache, zur Rache’ as he madly races through with his dark voice, strongly supporting the long notes and precisely carved coloratura. It’s a great selling point for the opera. All work at spitting out the German text with intent and vehemence. They laugh a lot too as they clunk about the stage. Sometimes the sound is odd, as if the singer were far upstage away from the microphones.

(Recorded at February 2007 performances at the Prinzregententheater in Munich.) Every recitative and aria is carefully documented, with 48 entry points on one disc and 35 on the other.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, April 2009

The plot is about as complicated as any present day soap opera…This may not sound very uplifting—but it is! There are occasionally fairly long stretches of recitative but they are executed tautly and with flair. Recorded live during performances the theatricality is tangible and the various stage noises are rarely disturbing—they rather enhance the feeling of being there. Recitatives and music are mostly seamlessly joined together, making this a continuous drama—not just a number of pieces loosely connected.

The Munich Neue Hofkapelle, playing on period instruments, are superb with crisp rhythms and verve in the playing. The springy opening sonata brings us straight into the proceedings and Keiser’s music is highly individual. Many of the fast or dramatic arias have a rugged incisiveness that in a way remove them from standard conceptions and he sometimes creates scenes rather than the expected stock da capo arias. Particularly in several of the slow lyrical arias he has obbligato solo instruments—Fredegunda’s Ach, nenne mich doch nur noch einmal Königin (CD 2 tr. 19) may be the most beautiful music in the whole opera. But there is a lot to admire, not least the many opportunities for the soloists to show off their virtuosity. This was common practice in the opera houses of the early 18th century and so was, at least in Hamburg, the strange habit of mixing languages. The recitatives are in German, well enunciated from all parties, but some of the arias are in Italian. I own some excerpts from Keiser’s Croesus as well as his colleague Johann Mattheson’s Boris Goudenow and in both works there is this mix.

The young soloists are certainly accomplished. Prague-born Dora Pavlíková in the title role has no less than nine arias and a duet. She has a formidable technique, a creamy beautiful tone and she sings with taste and expression. Try her Ihr reizende Blicke (CD 1 tr. 20) a rather unusually constructed aria Schliesset euch, ihr holde Kerzen (CD 1 tr. 22). Even better things are to come and Lass sich die Wolken (CD 2 tr. 33) is the virtuoso high-spot on this set. I am eagerly looking forward to hearing more from her. Bianca Koch, who sings Galsuinde, is also technically assured though her tone tends to be rather acidulous. She improves through the performance, however, and her last act aria Felice morirò (CD 2 tr. 30) is excellent. Katja Stuber has an agreeable voice, warm and secure and she makes Bazina a lovely creature. Du drohest und rasest (CD 1 tr. tr. 30) and Ein Sklav’ ist mehr beglückt zu schützen (CD 2 tr. 3) are excellent calling cards.

On the male side Tomi Wendt as Chilperich has the required power and intensity for the King’s outbursts. His aria Zur Rache, zur Rache (CD 1 tr. 24) is impressively dramatic. Michael Kranebitter’s Sigibert is more lyrical but he can also muster intensity when required. Just listen to his florid Mich schrecket kein Eifer (CD 1 tr. 37). Tomo Matsubara makes a good stab at Hermemegild’s Eine stolze Hand zu Küssen (CD 1 tr. 11) and Tobias Haaks sings Da voi fieri guerrieri (CD 2 tr. 15) with fine tone and technical accomplishment. He should be an asset in any Mozartean tenor role. There is an audience present but we are only aware of it at the close of act III and at the very end. The recording is excellent though voices occasionally become more distant due to stage movements. But this is a small price to pay for such lively and engaged performances for and such accomplished singing.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, February 2009

As usual, I set out first to test the claims made in the blurb on the rear insert, that this is ‘an important and entertaining…opera [which] abounds in melodious, often ravishingly orchestrated, music.’ More crucially, do the performances do justice to the music?

Certainly the music is very attractive—listen to track 28 of CD1 Ricordati, ben mio (‘Remember, o my beloved’) for some of the finest baroque music—though the opera has its moments of longueur and there is no doubt that posterity has been correct in preferring Telemann and Handel. If you have already become familiar with their music, however, Fredegunda is well worth trying.

The opening Sonata goes with a real swing in this performance; there’s no stodginess here, but rather the kind of abandon at the start which I associate with modern Italian performances of baroque music. On the other hand, there’s enough contrast between the sections to avoid the problem of having everything too hurried…

Dora Pavlíková as Fredegunda begins her opening recitative in fiery mood, too: at first she sounds almost too fiery to hit the notes securely, but soon settles down, especially in the aria Du verlachtest die Tränen (‘you mocked my tears’, CD1, track 3). After all, Fredegunda is a fiery character and she is chiding Chilperich for preferring Galsuinde—she opens the recitative by referring to him as Grausamer, ‘awful man’, and ends the ensuing aria by referring to his undoing their relationship mit deiner falschen Hand ‘with your faithless hand’.

Tomi Wendt’s Chilperich comes over as penny plain to Pavlíková’s twopenny coloured Fredegunda—I might have preferred him to be a little more sonorous and her a little less squally, but, again, this is not inappropriate to their roles—Chilperich is something of a wimp at this stage. By the time that we come to Fredegunda’s arias on tracks 20, (Ihr reizende Blicke, ‘your ravishing looks’) and 22, (Schließet euch, ihr holde Kerzen, ‘be extinguished, dearest candles’) Pavlíková is in much more mellifluous voice and Wendt’s Chilperich much firmer-toned. By track 24 (Zur Rache! ‘Revenge!’) both the character and Wendt’s voice have come much more to life.

The first notable aria is Galsuinde’s Lasciami piangere, ‘let me weep’ (CD1, track 7), and Bianca Koch sings it well. I might have preferred her to bring out its beauty a little more lovingly; it is, of course, a lament, but laments don’t have to be entirely squally. Galsuinde has some of the finest music—and the aria Ricordati, ben mio (CD1, tr.28), to which I have already referred as some of the finest baroque music, is sung by Koch in a manner which could hardly be bettered.

Michael Kranebitter as Sigibert, too, sings attractively, if a little too forthrightly: in his recitative Ich kann ja wohl die Zähren nicht verdammen (‘I cannot condemn the tears’, track8) he almost seems to have two different registers, one more attractive than the other. His diction is not exactly ideal: so keen is he to bring out the drama of his words that he sometimes fails to enunciate them perfectly. His aria Ich muß schweigend von dir gehen (‘I must be silent and leave you’, track 16) did not affect me as it should…

Katja Stuber as Bazina also has an attractive voice; in her first scene (track 9), however, she is slightly out-sung by Tomo Matsubara as Hermenegild. His voice has an attractive timbre, though his diction, too, is not perfect—he is not a native German-speaker. His aria Eine stolze Hand zu küssen (tr.11) illustrates both the attractiveness of his voice and his comparative failures of enunciation. If Stuber is a little reticent here, she is certainly in fine and powerful voice by track 30, giving Fredegunda as good as she gets in Du drohest und rasest (You threaten and rave). By this point, too, Kranebitter’s Sigibert has also warmed up somewhat; though I still found him a little too droopy in Ach betrachte doch die Wangen (tr.35 ‘Just look upon her cheeks’), his account of Mich schrecket kein Eifer, ich achte kein Drohen (tr.37, ‘Your overbearing threats do not frighten me’) is just right.

Tobias Haaks as Landerich is perhaps a little too forthright in the recitatives but he sings Ach, ich will viel lieber sterben (tr. 44, ‘Ah, I would much rather die’) in such a way as to make it one of the highlights of the first CD, almost at its close. If, as I suspect, the Chilperich-Fredegunda duet Vieni, o cara, o mio Tesoro (tr.48, ‘Come, my dear, my treasure’) which closes CD1, is meant to outshine Landerich—the few arias in Italian are some of the highlights of the music—it doesn’t succeed here: their singing sounds merely very decent by comparison, though they round off the act and the disc stylishly enough.

Matters are much the same on CD2, which begins quietly with the duet of Galsuinde and Bazina, Sanfte Lüfte (‘Gentle breezes’). There is some intrusive stage noise here—much than on CD1—and in the ensuing scene. Bazina’s aria Ein Sklav’ ist mehr beglückt (tr.3, ‘a slave has greater fortune’) is a little underpowered. If Kranebitter is the weak link on CD1, he atones somewhat in Sigibert’s duet with Galsuinde (tr.5), though he is still a little too lugubrious and Koch’s Galsuinde still a little shrill.

Pavlíková’s Fredegunda, too, is just a little too shrill for my taste in Vieni a me (tr.7, ‘Come to me’) by contrast with the delicate accompaniment. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but she does seem to tone down the shrillness for the repeat of this aria (tr.11).

Wendt’s Childerich is in much better voice than he was on the earlier part of CD1. His aria threatening to react with slaughter of his foes, Con le stragi (tr.13) goes with quite a bang, as does Haaks in Landerich’s Da voi fieri guerrieri (tr.15, ‘Your beauteous eyes, proud warriors’). Both these Italian arias are among the high points of the opera, and both receive good performances.

Fredegunda’s invocation of Hecate (tr.17) is another high spot and here Pavlíková is in almost ideal voice despite some unusually intrusive stage noise. Yet she is able to achieve real tenderness a few moments after this outburst in Ach, nenne mich doch nur noch einmal Königin (tr.19, ‘Oh, let me just once more be called the queen’).

Matsubara really manages to convey Hermenegild’s indecision (tr.21, Ach nein, ich kann nicht entscheiden, ‘Ah. No, I cannot decide’) and does so with fewer problems of diction than before. Paradoxically, Kranebitter’s diction in Su’l mio crine (tr.23, ‘I shall be crowned with love’) is less than ideal.

Wendt, in Childerich’s aria bidding fortune do its worst, Weich immerhin zurück (tr.25) is affective, though not entirely tonally secure. Koch is equally affective and in better voice in Felice moriró (tr.30 ‘I shall die happy’). The whole opera is rounded off by a suitably jubilant performance of the short fifth act.

This, then, is not a ‘Sunday-best’ cast but it is a good, often very good, workaday one. It’s certainly good enough for me to predict that I shall return to it—and I shall follow with interest the careers of these singers, mostly still in their twenties.

Christoph Hammer’s direction is secure; his own solo keyboard performances have clearly prepared him well to lead the Munich Neue Hofkapelle. Though founded in 1992 to specialise in historically informed performances, their playing offers baroque music without any of the excesses which sometimes spoiled period performances in earlier days and still sometimes intrude where one least expects it—on Jordi Savall’s rather strident, but still enjoyable, version of Biber’s Missa Bruxellensis (AV9808) for example. Some of the accompaniment here is really sensitive, as in the case of Fredegunda’s aria Vieni a me (‘Come to me’, CD2, tr.7).

Apart from some very minimal stage noise and applause at the end of each CD, there is little to indicate that the recording was made live. That it was so helps in part to explain why some of the singers are a little slow off the mark at the beginning—in a studio performance, of course, there could have been retakes to round off some of the slightly rough edges. The recording itself is neutral in the best sense of the word.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

Reviewing a recent ‘live’ performance of Reinhard Keiser’s The Fortunes of King Croesus, I described him as one of the great and unjustly neglected Baroque composers. Living at much the same time as Bach and Handel, Keiser frequently showed more interest in harmonic adventure than either of them, though after his death his prodigious output—including over a hundred operas—went into early decline. That in part was due to the collapse of the Hamburg Opera which came before the dissemination of his operas they had premiered. Fredegunda was one of the few that had travelled outside of the city and had staked a permanent place in the repertoire. The opera story followed that of the oft used love triangle, in this instance between King Chilperich, Princess Galsuinde and Fredegunda, though it did have, as was required in Keiser’s time, a happy outcome. Maybe he did not always find the instantly memorable melodies that we enjoy in Handel’s music, but his orchestral writing was often more effective, and he seldom descends to the passive accompaniment that was the norm in baroque opera. His writing never spared the singers, Fredegunda’s opening aria a severe test for any singer, and throughout he presents technical hurdles. He was also resourceful in his use of recitatives, which were usually more than linking narrative. Seven solo singers are needed, which was rather excessive at that time, and all have to be of a high standard for the wide-ranging lyric arias. The present performance was staged at the Prinzregententheatre in Munich, and from the booklet’s picture was visually a modern production, though a period instrument orchestra, the Munich Neue Hofkapelle, is used. Originated by the Bayerische Theatreakademie August Everding, it uses a young team of singers very early in their career, a point that is sometimes evident. The Czech soprano, Dora Pavlikova, is a name to look for in the future, and makes a good impression in the fast florid writing for Fredegunda, while I much enjoyed the more experienced tenor, Tomi Wendt, as the King. Recorded live, there are few intrusive stage noises, with good balance between singers and orchestra. The conductor, Christoph Hammer, keeps the score moving with admirable urgency.

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