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REVIEW: Jakub Józef Orliński and Il Pomo d'oro Brilliantly Recreate Early Baroque Vocal Splendor at The Conrad

Ken Herman
San Diego Story

April 9, 2024

Among the several aspects of Joyce DiDonato’s stellar concert for the La Jolla Music Society in January of 2023 was her collaboration with Il Pomo d’Oro. Sunday at The Conrad, nine members of this nonpareil early music orchestra returned to accompany the young Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński in an astounding concert of Italian music of the 17th century.

Although the appreciation of Baroque music has grown tremendously in the last 50 — 60 years, the general perception of the Baroque is defined by the greats of the 18th century: J. S. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, and Telemann top this heady list of composers whose music is regularly performed in concert halls and churches. But the music of the first 100 years of what we call the Baroque era is hardly known. Occasionally a violinist will play a Biber sonata, or an organist will offer a Frescobaldi canzona, and everyone at least knows that Claudio Monteverdi wrote Orfeo, the first opera, although few opera lovers have actually seen it performed.

Orliński and Il Pomo d’Oro gave an astounding performance of this exciting yet rarely encountered music, including several 17th-century composers I had never encountered—and earlier in my career I taught music history to university students! Orliński opened with a dramatic scene from Monteverdi’s last opera The Coronation of Poppea. In “E pur lo torno” the noble Ottone pours out his distress to learn that his beloved Poppea has become Nero’s mistress, and Orliński’s supple countertenor boldly navigated the spurned suitor’s emotional gamut from despair to rage. Orliński’s voice is strong and well-focused throughout the range, displaying just enough color to make it engaging, and it reveals a welcome flash of brilliance in his highest register.

Another scorned lover appears in Girolamo Frescobaldi’s aria “Così me disprezzate?” to air his revenge in vividly accented figures, which the countertenor declaimed with elegant precision. In 2019, San Diego audiences were privileged to experience Opera Neo’s production of Francesco Cavalli’s opera Il Giasone, and from the composer’s later opera Pompeo Magno, Orliński sang the aria “Incomprensibil nume,” written in a gentle parlando style in which Pompey offers thanks to the gods for his many victories.

Orliński’s physical use of the room dispelled any association with a demure vocal recital. He strode back and forth across the front of the stage as he sang, sometimes kneeling or sitting on the edge of the stage. At one point he turned a perfect cartwheel–although he was not singing at the time! He even sang Giulio Caccini’s song “Amarilli, mia bella” lying prone of the stage floor, and he sang Barbara Strozzi’s “L’amante consolato” strolling up and down the aisles of The Conrad, carrying his own illumination in his right hand.

The composer Giovanni  Cesare Netti flourished in the southern Italian city of Bari, and his music has only recently been discovered and transcribed. Orliński sang two arias from his 1681 opera  L’Adamiroand offered a scene from 1682 opera La Filli (La moglie del fratello) in which the protagonist sings three arias, each one devoted to sorrow, rage, or consolation as he traverses his unfortunate romantic trajectory. It is too easy to conclude that happy lovers have no need to sing! Orliński and Il Pomo d’Oro made a persuasive case for this unfamiliar music. Given the right venue such as the well-preserved 1766 Drottningholm Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden, perhaps Orliński could convince the Swedes to revive Netti’s operas on that stage in period splendor.