As western Europe was slowly taking baroque opera out of the deep-freeze in the mid-80’s, in Poland contemporary composers such as Górecki, Penderecki and Lutosławski were far more familiar than Pergolesi, Porpora, Scarlatti – or even George Frideric Handel. To remedy this lacuna, at least in Lower Silesia, the Wrocław (pronounced ‘Vrots-swov’) Baroque Orchestra mounted a semi-staged performance of Händel’s Rinaldo in the dazzling brand new Narodowe Forum Muzyki  (NFM) 1,800 seat concert hall.

This ground-breaking auditorium, with arguably the finest acoustics of any modern concert hall in Europe, opened in September. The NFM is clearly destined to become a concert venue of international significance (Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonic have already performed there) especially when Wrocław is designated European City of Culture in 2016.

The performance was vocally of acceptable quality but much more impressive was the outstanding instrumental playing of the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra under the Argentinean-born, Vienna-based baroque music specialist Rubén Dubrovsky.

As Handel did an 18th century ‘cut and paste’ job in 1711 with this opera (even ‘Lascia ch'io pianga’ was poached from an earlier oratorio), and then made extensive revisions in 1717 and 1731, maestro Dubrovsky dipped into all three scores and came up with a dramatically consistent, musically cohesive composite. The superb acoustics of the NFM hall highlighted the opera’s splendidly diverse orchestral colourings with impeccable clarity without losing any warmth of string tone.

The evening got off to a rollicking start with a spirited playing of the F major overture which displayed careful attention to rhythmic and dynamic detail as well as some excellent marcati and sforzandi in the strings. Later there was some finely articulated flauto piccolo and flauti dolci playing during Almirena’s birdcall ‘Augelletti, che cantata’ aria and from oboe d’amore and bassoon during Armida’s impassioned ‘Ah crudel’ scena. The tricky valveless tromba da tirarsi were suitably raspy in Argante’s ‘Sybillar gli angui d’Aletto’ with some impressive ornamentation, although not quite as accurate in Rinaldo’s rousing ‘Or la tromba’ aria. Lute and cello were excellent throughout.

The most memorable aspect about this performance was the avidity and commitment with which all members of the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra played the score. Maestro Dubrovsky has not only a deep understanding of baroque phrasing and style, but the ability to transmit this knowledge and enthusiasm to both players and singers. Unfortunately excellence in the pit was not always reflected on stage. Clear Italian diction was almost uniformly absent, which probably didn’t matter too much to the locals as the text was translated on side screens into Polish.

As Goffredo, Mozart tenor Markus Miesenberger seemed less than comfortable with the baroque style and most fioratura passages were indistinct. The andante ‘Siam prossimi al porto’ (which clearly foreshadows ‘Oh who can abide the day of His coming’ in The Messiah) was more convincing.

Christoph Woo sang the Saracen King Argante with agreeable mellifluousness and sensitive phrasing (‘Vieni o cara, a consolarmi’ was particularly pleasing with nice low A naturals) although like Goffredo, his baroque coloratura technique needs refining. The ‘Al trionfo del nostro furore’ duet with Armida  clearly revealed these limitations.

Hanna Herfuntner sung the part of sweet Almirena with commendable eveness of tone and an attractive stage presence. The show-stopping ariaLascia ch'io pianga’ was beautifully sung (and gracefully conducted) with a vibrato-less crystal clarity reminiscent of Sonya Yoncheva.  Unfortunately the da capo ornamentation was less successful with minimal trilling technique.

Looking like Glenn Close as Cruella Deville, Gesche Geier interpreted the role of Armida as a cross between Die Königin der Nacht and Elektra.  From her opening ‘Furie terribili!’ to the concluding ‘Al trionfo del nostro furore’ duet there were some decibel shattering interpolated top B and C naturals with vocal resources aplenty. Despite a tendency to occasionally push the voice, Ms Geier has a basically solid technique. There was some particularly fine legato singing in ‘Ah, crudel, il pianto mio, deh’ ably assisted by extremely sensitive oboe d’amore playing.  

In the title role of Rinaldo, Swiss-American countertenor Terry Wey looked more like a proselytizing Mormon cum insurance salesman than a fearless Crusader knight. Overall this was not a bad performance, but for the most part it lacked depth and the ideal heroic clarion timbre à la Horne. Legato passages (eg. ‘Cara sposa, amante cara’) were more satisfactory but what should have been a riveting climax in ‘Or la tromba’ was decidedly underwhelming.

There was some peripheral but frequent stage action using a collection of quite young schoolboys (one looked to be barely six) to represent Crusader and Saracen soldiers which was often distracting but varied the stage picture. 

Most impressive of all however was the NFM concert hall itself.


Update: when originally printed, as a result of an unannounced programme change, this review erroneously named Turkish soprano Çiğdem Soyarslan as Armida. We apologise to Ms Soyarslan and our readers for this error.