George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (HWV 46a)
Lucy Crowe (soprano - Bellezza), Anna Stephany (mezzo - Piacere), Hilary Summers (contralto - Disinganno), Andrew Staples (tenor - Tempo)
Early Opera Company/Christian Curnyn
rec. live, 29 January 2010, Wigmore Hall, London, UK. DDD
WIGMORE HALL LIVE - WHLIVE0042/2 [65:56 + 71:34]
Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno was the first contribution of the young George Frideric Handel to Italian oratorio. It was first performed in Rome in 1707, and the leader of the orchestra was no less than the great Arcangelo Corelli. It is assumed the brilliant violin solo in the closing aria of this oratorio was written to give him the opportunity to shine.
In Italy the oratorio was very much used as an instrument to spread the ideals of the Counter-Reformation. But Handel's work is different in that its subject is strictly speaking not religious. It isn't secular either, because it has a clear moral element. It fits into the tradition of the morality play. One of the most famous specimens of this genre is the Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo by Emilio de' Cavalieri, performed in 1600.
The theme of such pieces is simple: one person is tempted to look for happiness in earthly things, but characters around him try to make him realise that true happiness can only be found in eternal life. The key character can have any name - here it is Bellezza (Beauty) - but in fact symbolises mankind in general. She is encouraged to choose the path of worldly things by Piacere (Pleasure), whereas the opposing characters are Disinganno (Insight) and Tempo (Time). In this particular work the central question is what real beauty is: something of this world, which is doomed to pass by (represented by Piacere), or (moral) truth which lasts eternally. Insight and Time try to convince Beauty of the latter. In the end they win the argument as Beauty sees they are right.
Although in the time the oratorio was written morality was defined by faith, there are hardly any specific religious connotations. In the first part Tempo says in a recitative: "Whatever this world encompasses is my realm. If you do not want to see me, aspire to gain a precious seat in Heaven; in Heaven, where I have no place, and where glorious Eternity resides." Towards the end the references to the Christian faith become clearer, as Bellezza sings in an aria "I want to change my desire, and I want to say 'I repent', not 'I shall repent'. When I feel I am dying I do not want to offer God what I no longer have." The oratorio ends with another aria of Bellezza, which is directed to her 'guardian angel': "And though I lived unmindful of God, may you, as guardian of my heart, bring to Him a heart made new."
Fairly recently two recordings of this oratorio have been released, directed by Emmanuelle Haïm and Alessandro De Marchi respectively. They found divergent receptions: Jonathan Woolf was quite critical of the former, whereas Glyn Pursglove was generally positive about the second. They certainly both have their merits, but for various reasons I didn't like them very much, as I have described elsewhere.
When I received this production I was hoping for a satisfying interpretation. I was delighted to see the names of Lucy Crowe and Hilary Summers as two of the soloists. The former I had heard with great pleasure in Marc Minkowski's recording of music by Purcell, Handel and Haydn ("To Saint Cecilia"; Naïve, 2009), and I have always been a great fan of Ms Summers. My hope for a really good recording was aroused by the liner-notes. Christian Curnyn is in favour of carefully adding embellishment and against "too many unnecessary additions of displays of vocal prowess". Amen to that: too often I have heard recordings where the ornamentation was excessive and out of touch with the style of the baroque era. Stylish ornamentation is one of the merits of this new recording. Curnyn has also paid attention to the use of the messa di voce: a crescendo on a single note, followed by a decrescendo. This was one of the tools of the baroque singer to underline the emotion of a particular passage. It is often sorely missed in recordings of vocal music.
However my hopes were soon dashed when I started listening. In the liner-notes Curnyn states that he believes that Handel's orchestra was much larger than his own, but that the fourteen players involved in this performance are "perfectly suited to the size and acoustic of Wigmore Hall". I beg to disagree. Right from the start, in the Sonata which opens the proceedings, I was struck by the lack of presence of the orchestra, and that impression was only confirmed by what followed. This contributes to this performance being not particularly dramatic. But there is a second reason for that. There are too few contrasts in tempo, and that is deliberate. Curnyn believes that there is a kind of "right tempo" in Handel, and that extremes should be avoided. In my opinion he too easily dismisses the results of extensive research in the field of tempi in baroque music which suggest that there was a preference for strong contrasts in tempo. Curnyn refers to the notion of "rhetorical speech" to support his view. But I can't see why this notion would enforce a specific tempo. As everyone knows from experience, an orator tends to raise his voice and accelerate his speech in passages of great emotion. So it is only natural that the same happens in music based on rhetorics. Moreover, let us not forget that Italian treatises compare performers not so much with orators but rather with actors. This suggests a strongly theatrical approach of practically all Italian music - and this oratorio is definitely a piece of Italian music.
In the light of all this I found it hard to maintain concentration. That was even more the case as I was disappointed by the singing of three of the four soloists. Lucy Crowe lacks sufficient profile as Bellezza. Sometimes the delivery is under par, and I especially didn't like her vibrato. Anna Stephany is even worse in this respect. From a stylistic point of view her pretty big wobble is unacceptable. It really spoils her part, and it also makes some fast coloraturas problematic. In her liner-notes to the recording by Alessandro De Marchi the Handel scholar Ruth Smith states that Piacere is a young man, or even a boy. From that perspective Ms Stephany is miscast, as her voice is just not light enough to suggest a really young person.
Andrew Staples' singing is neat and stylistically convincing, but at the same time not really expressive. The recitative in Part 2, 'In tre parti divise' sounds like a news bulletin. It is just one example of his generally too bland account of his role. Frankly speaking I can't imagine Bellezza changing her mind because of the persuasiveness of Tempo. There is more reason to think it is due to Disinganno that she sees the light. Hilary Summers is the only soloist who gives a fully convincing and stylistically appropriate account of her role. The aria 'Più non cura' is one of the highlights of this recording. There are certainly some other nice moments. Despite the vibrato Lucy Crowe sings 'Un pensiero nemico' (Part 1) reasonably well, and the closing aria 'Tu del Ciel ministro eletto' can hardly fail to move. That is also due to the fine violin playing of Catherine Martin. The duet of Disinganno and Tempo in Part 2, 'Il bel pianto', is also well done.
This production fails to bring the interpretation I had been hoping for. On balance it’s no better than the two recent recordings I have mentioned before. This means that in all probability an earlier recording, directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini, remains first choice, although it is a long time since I have heard it and I don't know if it is still available. Even if it is, it would be good to have at least one good alternative. This recording is not in that category.
Johan van Veen
Not particularly dramatic performance of Handel's oratorio.