The Low Countries have been one of the centres of historically-informed performance from the very start of the Baroque revival. The number of renowned period ensembles born on either side of the Dutch-Belgian border is considerable. Based in The Hague, Symphonie Atlantique (previously Les Vents Atlantiques) is a newcomer to watch. This orchestra brings together a group of young professional musicians from all over the globe, whose common denominator is to be alumni of the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Last Sunday, their matinee performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto was enthusiastically received by the public of the Concertgebouw and demonstrated that period performances have bright days ahead.

Lawrence Zazzo © Eric Richmond
Lawrence Zazzo
© Eric Richmond

The orchestra played without a conductor, led by violinist and concert master Rebecca Huber, with most of the musicians standing throughout the duration of the concert. It was a lively and very engaging performance overall, aptly delivered, give or take a couple of brief moments of faulty coordination with the singers. There were some thoroughly enjoyable solos from the instrumentalists too, most notably from Rebecca Rosen on the cello in “Cara speme” and Ms Huber herself who accompanied Caesar’s aria “Se in fiorito ameno prato” with commanding virtuosity.

The cast boasted an impressive international line-up of singers, some of whom have already performed their roles in major theatres. I have been partial towards Lawrence Zazzo since I heard his memorable Giulio Cesare under the baton of René Jacobs (another Low-Lander) in the 2008 production of the Dutch National Opera. I wasn’t disappointed. There is still the same sweetness of tone in “No è si vago e bello”, utter self-confidence in “Va tacito” and, if the extreme top might be less easy than I had remembered, the coloratura remains impeccable, with the required steel in the martial “Al lampo dell’armi”. Most impressive of all perhaps, was Mr Zazzo’s extremely moving “Aure, deh, per pietà“, sang with pathos and elegant phrasing. His Caesar came, sang and conquered.

I wish his Cleopatra would have taken us in a similar emotional journey. With no less than eight arias, the role of Cleopatra was originally written by Handel to showcase the art of his star soprano, Francesca Cuzzoni, in conveying a wide array of emotions to her adoring public. Alas, Anna Christy’s voice with its limited range of colours and somewhat tart timbre at the top is ill-suited for the role of the seductive Egyptian queen and her character never really developed beyond the coquettish soubrette.

There was much more to enjoy from performances of other soloists. Patricia Bardon’s rich and dark contralto gave regal stature to the patrician Cornelia and “Priva son d’ogni conforto” was heart-rendering. Abigail Levis’ clear and flexible mezzo was perfect for the boy Sesto. She delivered “L’angue offeso” with dazzling ornementation and my biggest regret was that one of her arias in Act II was cut. Tania Kross, always a favourite of the Amsterdam public, was a particularly rich-voiced Tomoleo. The Dutch mezzo-soprano uses effects that some purists might not always find to their liking, but her larger-than-life portrayal of a coleric and camp villain is simply irresistable and had the audience roaring with applause. Edward Grint’s warm baritone, boasting a solid and dark-coloured low register, was an appealling Achilla. Meili Li sang the too-often cut only aria of Nireno stylishly.

This concert by Symphonie Atlantique was a one-off performance after several days of rehearsal under the artistic direction of Michael Chance, who teaches early music at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. The orchestra appears to have a privileged working relationship with the world-renowned British countertenor. I have no doubt that we will be hearing more from this energetic young ensemble in the future. I'll gladly go and listen to them again.

Handel's Semele is next up on 10 May. 

***11