When it rains in Bucharest, it really rains. Two hours before Sunday’s late-night concert with the Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon and Magdalena Kožená, the heavens opened, unleashing torrential rain and deafening thunder. Having left my umbrella at home in Norway, even a quick sprint to the concert venue – the brazenly ornate Romanian Atheneum – left me drenched to the bone. I was, however, not the only one with weather-related problems; the orchestra, conductor and soloist were also caught, and the whole concert had to be delayed by almost half an hour, while the musicians were transported to the venue. It might have been because of the less than ideal start to the concert, but the performance took a while to get properly going. Not until after the interval did it feel like Marcon and Kožená were on the same page, musically.

Magdalena Kožená and the Venice Baroque Orchestra © Alex Damian
Magdalena Kožená and the Venice Baroque Orchestra
© Alex Damian

The all-Handel concert got off to something of a rocky start, the opening B flat Concerto Grosso Op.3 no. 2 taken at sluggish pace, with smudged and inaccurate playing from the two solo violins. The oboe solo in the slow movement was wonderfully lyrical and the final gavotte was nicely swinging, but the whole concerto felt half-hearted. This feeling continued when Kožená took the stage, singing “L’angue offeso” from Giulio Cesare and “Ogni venti” from Agrippina.

Magdalena Kožená is a curious singer. While her voice is beautiful, her interpretations can often feel strangely distant. It’s as if she’s standing outside the music looking in – not inhabiting a character, merely observing it. While this certainly can result in interesting interpretations, I’m not convinced it’s a good fit for the distilled, intense emotion of a Handel aria. At first, Kožená showed herself a technically capable singer, with decent coloratura and a hint of a trill, yet her characterisation that amounted to little more than the odd smirk.

Members of the Venice Baroque Orchestra © Alex Damian
Members of the Venice Baroque Orchestra
© Alex Damian

Still, her characterisations increased in involvement and intensity as the concert went on. After a rollicking Concerto Grosso in G major Op.6 no. 1 – despite a few instances of possibly weather-related questionable intonation – Kožená again took the stage with “Cara sposa” from Rinaldo. Although she struggled with intonation in the first few phrases, she quickly regained her balance. The first half of the aria still felt weirdly hollow, but Kožená really came into her own in the A section repeat. Through heart-meltingly beautiful low ornaments, she was suddenly able to access the emotion that had been so lacking elsewhere.

The repeat of the A section also proved the best in the next aria, a ferociously fast “Venti turbini” from Rinaldo. Supported by some highly athletic bassoon playing, Kožená seemed to have her hands full with singing all the notes on the page, intently watching the score for the first half of the aria. And again, when the A section reappeared, she was suddenly much freer, new ornaments fizzing along at breakneck speed.

Andrea Marcon and Magdalena Kožená © Alex Damian
Andrea Marcon and Magdalena Kožená
© Alex Damian

Following the interval, it was as if a new singer had emerged. Kožená lunged herself at the painful dissonances of “Se pietà” from Giulio Cesare and the intensity of Agrippina’s “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” was unlike anything that had come before, supported by murderously stabbing strings and melancholy oboe. Marcon and the orchestra struggled to find the spark in the last of the instrumental interludes, the A minor Concerto Grosso Op.6 no. 4, perhaps owing to the more sombre nature and less overt virtuosity, compared to the others. Still, the concert ended on a high with a joyous “Dopo notte” from Ariodante. The orchestra might have been a touch too loud, but everyone seemed to be having an enormous amount of fun, especially Kožená, gleefully inserting high notes.

As an encore, Kožená sang the charmingly rustic “Solo quella guancia bella” from Vivaldi’s La verità in cimento, and it was clear that she was finally in her element. It may have taken her the first half of the concert to get there, but she was a joy to listen to when she finally did.