Handel & Barry together at Almeida Opera – 27 June

A prologue of arias from The Triumph of Time and Truth*

Belezza – Gillian Keith (soprano)
Piacere – Andrew Watts (alto)
Disinganno – William Purefoy (alto)
Tempo – Stephen Richardson (baritone)

The Triumph of Beauty & Deceit

Pleasure – Andrew Watts (alto)
Truth – William Purefoy (alto)
Beauty – Christopher Lemmings (tenor)
Deceit – Roderick Williams (baritone)
Time – Stephen Richardson (baritone)

Nigel Lowery – direction & design

Birmingham Contemporary Music Groupconducted by Gary Cooper* and Thomas Adès

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 June, 2002
Venue: Almeida at King’s Cross, Omega Place, London

Levels of reality and illusion aplenty here. Handel’s Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (1707) is one of the flamboyant oratorios with which the composer made his name in Rome when still in his early twenties. There’s something of the morality-drama in the way that Beauty opts for union with Pleasure, as against the realities of Time and Truth – with Deceit a ’free agent’ seeking his own gratification.

The music has the florid virtuosity of Italian-period Handel, the arching flexibility of the vocal parts in tandem with incisive and rarely-accompanying instrumental writing – at its most imaginative in Deceit’s ’Crede l’uom’ with its delicate recorder contribution. Musically the emotional range is wide – exemplified by the final pair of arias: Pleasure’s angry and vengeful ’Come nembo’ contrasted with Beauty’s chaste and spare ’Tu del ciel’ with its haunting pizzicato underlay and obbligato violin solo.

The selection of arias was well chosen as an overview of the work, while ensuring proper dramatic contrast. Gillian Keith’s Beauty was a model of clarity and grace, while Stephen Richardson’s Time impressed in its trenchancy and sense of vulnerability behind the stoicism. The ’waiting room’ stage-set and St Trinian’s-style uniforms at least drew attention to the strength of vocal acting. Gary Cooper directed with vigour and was attentive to the needs of phrasing and the subtle but meaningful dynamic shadings of Handel’s instrumentation.

Subtlety of dynamics is not something one would outwardly associate with Gerald Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty & Deceit. The confrontation between the ’qualities’ represented by the protagonists is more visceral, vocal writing often reduced to a seething confrontation of conflicting lines. The urging – at times simultaneous – to fulfilment and destruction is played out in graphic and violent terms, though with a dry and sometimes grating humour familiar from other Barry works.

It was here that Nigel Lowery’s designs really came into their own, above all in the differentiation of character-types. Stephen Richardson’s dour, totemic Time; William Purefoy’s evangelist Truth; Andrew Watts’s ’on the make’ Pleasure; Roderick Williams’s alternately fun-loving and suicidal Deceit; and Christopher Lemmings’s traversal from the ravishing to the ravaged as Beauty. Thomas Adès articulated the fast-moving score – a succession of intricate canons and ostinatos, interspersed with toccata-like interludes where the ensemble really lets rip – so that the pace never flagged. Meredith Oakes’s libretto, chock-full of wordplay and innuendo, was fully and necessarily surtitled.

In its drawing parallels of the ’then as now’ as regards human morality and fallibility, this is as finely matched a double-bill as one could hope for.

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