Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno – Oratorio in two parts to a libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili [sung in Italian]
Belezza [Beauty] – Augusta Hebbert
Piacere [Pleasure] – Hannah Sandison
Disinganno [Enlightenment] – Christopher Lowrey
Tempo [Time] – Samuel John Furness
La Nuova Musica
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 21 March, 2013
Venue: St George’s, Hanover Square, London
La Nuova Musica has one Handel recording under its belt (of Il pastor fido). In this performance of his first oratorio it further demonstrated dependability in Handelian interpretation, a properly realised dramatic sensibility and a conspicuous achievement given this allegorical oratorio has virtually no plot. Beauty has to choose between Pleasure or Time, in accordance with the representations they make, goaded on by Enlightenment.
Il Trionfo meant much to Handel. He returned to it twice to make adaptations, in 1737 and in 1757 for what turned out, fittingly, to be his last oratorio (this time, fully in English). The Second Part of the original 1707 version (performed here) also serves as a potpourri for Handelians in which to spot the melodies that were re-used and made more famous. The most obvious is ‘Lascia la spina’ which became ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo (although it was not new for Il Trionfo, having originally appeared in Handel’s first opera, Almira, in 1704).
With a cast of four singers it was perhaps tempting simply to produce Il Trionfo as a domestic entertainment, but the performers made of it something rather operatic and dramatic in as far as its straightforward sequence of da capo arias (and occasional ensembles) and recitatives allows. The experience was rewarding and stimulating. Only 22 when he wrote it, Handel’s music was composed to impress his Italian patrons. The vocal virtuosity required was flawlessly realised and imbued with a credible personality. The ultimate moral of the story is that Time’s rule in this mortal life cannot be avoided, but the drama follows Beauty’s fraught deliberations as she tries to choose between a life lived to the selfish dictates of pleasure, or one that acknowledges humankind’s limitations.
In Augusta Hebbert’s portrayal of Beauty we heard her move from naïve enjoyment in her youth and prettiness – even teasing Time and Enlightenment as to whether they have any power over her – through the frustrations of choosing between Pleasure or Time, and to humble submission to the truth revealed to her. In a sense we witness Beauty’s new-found illumination over her former deluded worldview, and its culmination was realised by Hebbert’s ascending the pulpit to sing a radiant ‘Tu del Ciel’, one of the most ravishing arias (so tenderly simple and direct) that Handel ever wrote. As Pleasure, Hannah Sandison gave a veneer of specious opulence to the music, designed to ensure that Beauty would remain ensnared by her charms. Her singing was captivating when Pleasure was on the offensive, working particularly well in tandem with the chamber-organ continuo accompaniment in ‘Un leggiadro’. But chameleon-like, she appeared in a dangerously different musical guise in ‘Fosco genio’ when warning Beauty of the gloominess that would descend if she were to banish Pleasure. And yet there was a further insight into Pleasure’s character with the introduction of anguish and regret in ‘Tu giurasti di mai’, in which she berates Beauty for leaving her.
Samuel John Furness gave a commanding rendition of Time, a stern, didactic character that Furness brought out with considerable force, at times having almost the weight of a bass instead of the tenor he is. However he did not provide a one-dimensional account of the role, but brought out other aspects: even in the recitative that opens the Second Part, where Time discloses to Beauty what Truth entails, Furness sang his lines with thoughtfulness and gravity instead of admonishment. Two of the oratorio’s highlights are reserved for Enlightenment, the luscious arias ‘Crede l’uom’ and ‘Più non cura’, both of which feature recorders. Countertenor Christopher Lowrey rendered the yearning simplicity of their melodic lines to perfection, with no breaks between notes. Enlightenment rather functions as the go-between from Time to Beauty, and with his equally beguiling music it is no wonder Beauty should find it such a difficult choice to make. Lowrey rightly sang with a more-chaste and temperate sense of refinement than Pleasure, and so there was a genuine choice. Lowrey’s voice has a bright and rounded vibrato that reminds of Derek Lee Ragin’s, one of Lowrey’s teachers.
The performance was not staged explicitly, but there were telling gestures among the soloists. The setting of St George’s (Handel’s parish church) gave solemnity to this morality. Indispensable was David Bates’s direction and the dynamic and warm playing of La Nuova Musica, as engaged with the music as the singers. Rarely can such moralising have been so enchanting!