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George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707)
Roberta Invernizzi (soprano) – Bellezza
Kate Aldrich (mezzo) – Piacere
Martin Oro (counter-tenor) – Disinganno
Jörg Dürmüller (tenor) – Tempo
Academia Montis Regalis / Alessandro de Marchi
rec. 12-16 June, 2007, Oratorio Santa Croce (Sala Ghislieri), Mondovì, Italy
[68:07 + 69:19]


Experience Classicsonline

Given the beauty, maturity and inventiveness of so much of its music it is astonishing to realise that Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno was written when Handel was no more than 22. The young composer came to Italy in 1706, perhaps going initially to Florence; by January 14th of the following year (at the latest) he was in Rome. One of the patrons towards whom Handel gravitated was Benedetto Pamphili (1653-1730), scion of one of the great Roman families, grand-nephew of Pope Innocent X, who made him a Cardinal in 1681. Pamphili was a distinguished patron of the arts, as discussed in Lina Montalto’s book Un mecenate in Roma Barocca: il Cardinale Benedetto Pamphili (1955); an important art-collector and patron of architectural projects, Pamphili’s musical interests led him to extend his patronage to many composers, including Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Pasquini and Gasparini, as well as Handel. An important member of the literary circle known as the Accademia dell’Arcadia, Pamphili was also a pretty decent poet in his own right. The libretto he wrote for this oratorio is an assured and intelligent piece of work which hasn’t always had the praise it deserves. The problem, fundamentally, is that nowadays we struggle to feel at home with baroque (and pre-baroque) traditions of allegory.

Essentially, Pamphili’s libretto is a variant on the ancient narrative of the Choice of Hercules - of which a much older Handel was later to set an English version by Thomas Morell - in which Hercules must choose between two paths, represented by two women; one, Pleasure, seeks to direct him to a smooth and easy, superficially promising path; the other, Virtue, prompts him to follow the harder, more rugged path, which, she assures him, will eventually lead him to enduring glory. In Pamphili’s fable, Bellezza (beauty, a young woman, perhaps also to be ‘read’ as the human soul) is tempted by Piacere (Pleasure, a young man) but, partially because of the warnings and advice given her by Tempo (Time) turns away from Pleasure to side with a figure Pamphili calls Disinganno. This last has sometimes been Englished as ‘Disillusion’, ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Insight’. It is hard to translate it satisfactorily by a single English word. The word inganno means a deception. It is used several times in Pamphilo’s libretto; Bellezza’s mirror, which she finally throws to the floor, is said to have devised tanti inganni alla beltà (so many deceits/deceptions for beauty); the finally rejected Piacere acknowledges, at the close of the work, that l’inganno è il mio solo alimento: deception is my only food. Disinganno is the power which enables us to see through and beyond inganni (deceptions) and see the Truth plain and uncovered - if we have to settle for one word ‘Truth’ might be a not-too-misleading translation. In the nature of allegorical representation, it isn’t entirely clear whether that power resides within our own minds or whether it has to be acquired under the influence of some external power. Pamphili’s whole fable is an externalisation of moral and psychological struggles. In that sense it is like many a great baroque painting of the sort that librettist and composer would have been familiar with on the walls of the great Roman palaces (including the librettists’ family establishment in what is now the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili. The fable blurs the certainties of distinctions between inner and outer world. It takes a considerable imaginative effort, but for anything like a full appreciation of the work we need to try to think ourselves into a frame of mind that doesn’t come easily to us. If we can do that – at least partially – we surely shan’t be tempted to feel, as more than a few writers have, that Handel wrote fine music despite a dull or banal libretto. He was inspired by Pamphili’s words because they captured to perfection one of the ways of thinking most characteristic of the arts of the age and he, in turn, gave splendid musical expression to those characteristics.

From the very beginning the music compels – and maintains – attention. The very Overture embodies the pattern of antithetical moral and emotional choice so fundamental to the work as a whole. A playful allegro, full of present delight and zestful anticipations of future pleasure, splits open to frame, at its centre, a contrasting adagio in the minor, full of unease and uncertainty. The Overture is succeeded by a kind of soliloquy by Bellezza, addressing her image in the mirror, in which her satisfaction in her own beauty is shot through with the knowledge – but it is not knowledge on which she seems prepared to act – that it can’t last for ever. We might say of her at this point what Alexander Pope’s says of Belinda in The Rape of the Lock (written less than ten years after Il trionfo): “the Nymph intent adores / With Head uncover’d, the Cosmetic Pow’rs. / A heav’nly Image in the Glass appears, / To that she bends, to that her Eyes she rears”. Like Pope’s Belinda, the Bellezza of Pamphili/Handel has to learn that “Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll; / Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul”. As Bellezza, Roberta Invernizzi sings with great radiance of tone and responds convincingly both to the moral argument of the libretto and to the human attractiveness of that which must finally be rejected, an attractiveness of which Handel’s music so often speaks with ravishing charm. Invernizzi is one of the finest sopranos currently to be heard in the baroque repertoire and this is an outstanding performance, which certainly bears comparison with - if it does not, in some respects, surpass - the interpretations of singers such as Natalie Dessay (under the baton of Emmanuelle Haim on Virgin Classics), Isabelle Poulenard (conducted by Mark Minkowski on Erato) and Deborah York (directed by Rinasso Alessandrini on Naïve).

Kate Aldrich is almost equally impressive in the role of Piacere; her rich mezzo voice can be both seductive (not least in ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’) and fiercely assertive; Martin Oro sings with authority and intelligence and invests Disinganno’s often rather stern morality with a sympathetic humanity; his is a countertenor voice quite without stridency and I much enjoyed arias such as ‘Più non cura’ and ‘Chi già fu’. As Tempo, Jörg Dürmüller sings with sureness of idiom and sensitivity, even if he doesn’t have an especially alluring voice. His performance of ‘Urne voi’, the musical equivalent of all those baroque poems and paintings reminding the onlooker of the inevitability of death, has real power, and presents a properly chastening memento mori. In quartets such as ‘Se non sei più ministro di pene’ and ‘Voglio tempo’ the voices are blended beautifully and the performances bring out perfectly the ways in which Handel’s responsiveness to text and psychology is almost Mozartian in its subtlety.

Alessandro de Marchi directs a performance – with committed, accomplished and passionate playing from his Academia Montis Regalis – which has energy and vitality as well as dignity, and which avoids the temptations of exaggeration to which Alessandrini perhaps sometimes yields in his more immediately exciting recording. The soloists here are perhaps not quite such big names as those who appear on some of the other recordings, but all of them (especially Invernizzi) acquit themselves very well. All the performances I have mentioned – directed by Minkowski, Alessandrini and Haim – have their distinctive merits and all are thoroughly enjoyable versions of this early masterpiece of Handel’s. It is a work of many facets (and alternative, equally valid, possibilities) and we needn’t, I believe, expect to find a single definitive recording which does justice to all of them. But if I had to choose a single performance, I think I might well (my hesitation is because I haven’t had time to listen again to all three of the other versions) choose this current one – balanced, assured and radiant with sympathetic understanding. The recorded sound is excellent – so too is the booklet essay by Ruth Smith.

Glyn Pursglove


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