Hallelujah! That may not be the most appropriate term of praise for Handelʼs 1738 oratorio Saul – even librettist Charles Jennens balked when the composer wanted to finish his Biblical tragedy with an hallelujah chorus. But it certainly fits the concert performance that the Czech Ensemble Baroque Orchestra and Choir staged as part of the Prague Symphony Orchestraʼs winter season.

Roman Válek © Petr Dyrc
Roman Válek
© Petr Dyrc

The ensemble is run by Baroque specialist Roman Válek, who supplements the Czech Republicʼs considerable pool of early music talent with singers and musicians from Slovakia, Poland and Germany for concerts, festivals, a summer school and regular radio, television and film work. Czech Ensemble Baroque has a growing catalog with Supraphon, focused mainly on the neglected 18th-century Austro-Moravian composer Franz Xaver Richter. The ensemble has also recorded a sparkling set of Handel arias with Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka.

Plachetka headlined the Saul performance along with German countertenor Andreas Scholl, and the two made a magnificent Saul and David, respectively. A Prague native who has graduated from local stages to regular appearances at the Wiener Staatsoper and Metropolitan Opera, Plachetka struck a foreboding tone in his opening accompagnatos and air that grew darker as the evening progressed, providing a perfect counterpoint to Schollʼs bright, clear singing, which is as pure as any voice in the genre. The David role includes more than a few high notes, which rang through the Rudolfinum with thrilling clarity.

Andreas Scholl © Petr Dyrc
Andreas Scholl
© Petr Dyrc

The supporting cast was satisfying if uneven. Soprano Natalia Rubís sings expressively but with a voice that can be brittle at times, or at least was in her interpretation of Merab. Soprano Kristýna Vylíčilová has a lovely lyrical sound and style that gave Michal strong emotional appeal. After he warmed up, tenor Rupert Charlesworth turned in a stormy, intense Jonathan, and Tadeáš Hoza, singing at the low end of the tenor range, added gravitas as the High Priest.

For all that, the best vocal work of the evening arguably came from the 20-member choir, which sang with power and emotional urgency, lending the performance an epic dimension. The sound was deep, vibrant and richly detailed, providing colorful support for the soloists and a running dialogue with the orchestra. One might have wished for a bit more dramatic shading, but itʼs easy to be swept up in the glory and joy of the music – indeed, in almost all of Handelʼs choral music – apparently for listeners and singers alike.

Válek prefers an animated, rhythmic style of Baroque that was a good fit for Saul, almost a narrative in itself unfolding behind the singers. The orchestra sound was full-bodied, with silken strings on top and woodwinds and horns that blended gracefully, creating a seamless tapestry. His approach highlights the solos, for which Válek is happy to step back and turn loose talented players – in this case, organist Marek Čermák, harpist Kateřina Ghannudi and Baroque keyboard specialist Barbara Maria Willi, who did double duty on the harpsichord and carillon.

Adam Plachetka © Petr Dyrc
Adam Plachetka
© Petr Dyrc

Unfortunately, the captivating musical performance was undercut by weak, amateurish staging. Instead of remaining seated with the orchestra and chorus for the performance, the singers spent most of their time either in seats along the side or offstage entirely, dashing to the microphones at the front of the stage for their lines, then retreating just as quickly. The logistics were so snarled that at one point Hoza missed a cue, ran onstage a few moments late, then had to flip through the pages of the score to find his place. The audience laughed, but by then it didnʼt matter – any hope for dramatic impact was long gone.

Under the best of conditions, Baroque oratorios tend to be stiff affairs, especially if performed in the period style of feet anchored to the floor and even recitatives addressed directly to the audience rather than the other performers. But even in a concert performance itʼs possible to create a narrative thread and dramatic tension, especially in this piece, with its great waves of triumph and despair and personal passions running the emotional gamut from love to rage. Without that, even the famous Dead March in the third act felt flat, musically engaging but emotionally inert.

Still, well-done Handel is always a welcome way to spend an evening. And with eyes closed, this particular evening was glorious.

***11