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George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusion)
Oratorio in two parts, HWV 46a (1707) [133:22]
ERATO Blu-ray 9029 581929 [138 mins]

Standing out at the 2016 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence is Polish stage director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new production of Handel’s oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusion). This impressive spectacle features narcissistic Bellezza (Beauty) and her relationship with the untrustworthy Piacere (Pleasure), in which she gradually denounces vanity and sinful pleasure to achieve spiritual redemption. The festival production was filmed at Théâtre de l'Archevêché, the courtyard of the former archbishop’s palace in Aix. It was also broadcast live on France Musique and France Télévisions. Surprisingly, apart from the French television broadcast, this production was not reviewed as widely as I expected in the written press, and I could not find a report in Opera magazine.

An early work, Il trionfo is Handel’s first oratorio, to a libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. It was premièred in Rome in 1707, possibly at the palace of Handel’s patron Cardinal Ottoboni. At the time, the omnipotent Roman Catholic Church banned all opera productions in Rome. Several composers of the High Baroque, including Handel, employed a ploy. They used the genre of oratorio, where the scandalous and licentious opera plots were watered down or often disguised with the sacred texts. That offered protection against censorship.

Cardinal Pamphili’s libretto comprises roles for four allegorical characters: Bellezza (Beauty) soprano, Piacere (Pleasure) mezzo-soprano, Tempo (Time) tenor and Disinganno (Disillusion) contralto. Interestingly, there is no part for chorus in the original version. Most details of the first performance have not survived. Since women were not allowed to perform in Rome, it can be concluded that castrati would have sung the parts of Bellezza, Piacere and Disinganno. It seems that the renowned violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli was orchestra leader at the first performance.

Over a fifty-year period, Handel revised and expanded the oratorio for London production on two occasions as Il trionfo del Tempo e della Verità (The Triumph of Time and Truth), HWV 46b (1737) and to an English text as The Triumph of Time and Truth, HWV 71 (1757). The latter became in effect his last oratorio. The autographed manuscript of the original version (1707) was found. That score is the one staged here by Krzysztof Warlikowski and conducted by music director Emmanuelle Haïm. In fact, Haïm knows the score well. She recorded it before with Le Concert d'Astrée and a different quartet of soloists in 2004/2006 at IRCAM, Paris for Virgin Classic (reissued by Erato).

Director Krzysztof Warlikowski and his creative team give the oratorio Il trionfo full operatic-style staging. Warlikowski and set designer Malgorzata Szczesniak have decided on a single set for both parts of the oratorio. The stage at the open-air Théâtre de l'Archevêché looks like a theatre or cinema. It comprises two large sets of tiered seating (116 seats in total) separated by a two-metre wide corridor, reminding me of a hospital passageway. It is constructed with see-through plastic walls, which run from back stage to near the front and from floor to ceiling. It has been contended that the divided stage might represent the two hemispheres of the human brain divided down the middle by the wide plastic-walled corridor. Above each set of tiered seating, the back walls are used as large screens to project film of significant action on stage. Virtually all of the production takes place on the reasonably narrow stage between the tiered seating and the orchestra pit. Against the left hand courtyard wall adjacent to the end of the orchestra pit a small stage has been constructed to make a compact walled garden complete with large tree in full leaf and small lawn. Szczesniak uses little in the way of props, mainly a hospital stretcher trolley, dining table and desk which appear on the stage at various times. As the stage curtain falls prior to the interval, Warlikowski screens short footage from Ken McMullen’s 1983 film Ghost Dance where French philosopher Jacques Derrida is being interviewed about the existence of ghosts.

To negate the static nature of the oratorio and scarcity of narrative, the director ensures there is significant movement on stage mainly from the secondary cast. At various times a number of the twenty or so young women cast members, plus towards the conclusion an old woman, sit dotted around the theatre/cinema seating. At other times the youthful cast can be seen in the plastic-walled dividing corridor, using it as a night-club for dancing and drug taking. A regular presence, serving mainly a sexual temptation and general eye candy, is one young dark tousled haired man appearing in skinny jeans and white vest, at one point stripping down to his underpants and dripping blood. Another small non-speaking role calls for a nurse, wearing an especially short white uniform, who displays an uninterested, rather grumpy demeanour.

Szczesniak also designed the costumes. The designs are stylish and contemporary, with the group of young women wearing skimpy and colourful party clothes. Disinganno and Tempo are the exception. They wear more conservative attire, more suited to the mature age of the characters. French soprano Sabine Devieilhe as the hedonist, pill-popping Bellezza is dressed in her short party dress in ivory with matching heels and short leather jacket, and later on in a heavily decorated white wedding dress and floral headband. Often seen with her face streaked with dark eye make-up, fresh from crying, the talented Devieilhe certainly makes her presence felt, throwing herself incisively into the starring role with a performance of compelling commitment and maturity. Her vibrant soprano and unwavering tone demand attention. She excels in the demanding part notably with her heartfelt aria Tu del ciel ministro eletto, imploring God in Heaven for a heart made new. Impressive too is her overall vocal agilità, especially her confident navigation of the coloratura demands.

With a long, lank, black haired wig, wearing blue suit, white shirt, cravat and Lennon-style glasses with coloured lens, Argentine born Franco Fagioli adequately sings the part of Piacere but offers little in way of stage presence. Although Fagioli’s countertenor rather lacks colour, impressive throughout is the purity of his projection and his smooth glide through his range. Fagioli gives a creditable performance of Lascia la spina, the first version of the famous aria Lascia ch'io pianga which Handel recycled for his opera Renaldo.

Wearing a selection of elegant evening dresses and matching heels, experienced Italian contralto Sara Mingardo, an early-music specialist, takes the role of Disinganno in her stride. Mingardo is an assured figure, displaying formidable musicianship with a lovely rich and strong projection. A highlight is a strikingly rendered Disinganno’s duet with Tempo Il bel pianto dell'Aurora. Dressed by Szczesniak in a brown suit, pullover and orange shirt to look older than his years, Michael Spyres makes a suitably arrogant and lecherous Tempo, repeatedly chancing his arm with Bellezza. The American tenor is a confident performer. His powerful voice is produced smoothly with remarkable ease, but less enjoyable is his quavering coloratura. In excellent form, period instrument ensemble Le Concert d’Astrée consists here of thirty-eight players including an eight-strong basso continuo. Emmanuelle Haïm demonstrates remarkable musicianship. She directs with fluency and lashings of verve. As the cast are taking their bows after the performance, director Krzysztof Warlikowski is called to the stage and seems rather disconcerted by what sounds like some boos mixed in with the applause.

In a choice of stereo and surround sound, the audio has been produced to a gratifying standard, as one has come to expect from this label. The TV direction by Stéphane Metge has achieved fine camera results with a wide array of satisfying shots, including well-chosen close-ups. Nevertheless the film is devoid of any indication that this is an outdoor production. Strangely, there are virtually no shots of the audience. Provided in the accompanying booklet is an overview of Il trionfo and a helpful synopsis. Disappointingly, the numbered track listing is by screen menu only. Bonus content, specifically interviews with the principals and design team, can be a valuable option. A film of some publicity interviews conducted with both Warlikowski and Haïm is available on YouTube; no footage is included here.

My initial feeling - that this film would appeal only to diehard Handel admirers and lovers of the late-Baroque oratorio - was wide of the mark. With the imaginativeness of Warlikowski’s opera-like staging and the outstanding cast, I fully expect Il trionfo to win the composer many new friends.

Michael Cookson

Disc contents & performance details
Bellezza – Sabine Devieilhe
Piacere – Franco Fagioli
Disinganno – Sara Mingardo
Tempo – Michael Spyres
Le Concert d’Astrée / Emmanuelle Haïm
Krzysztof Warlikowski (Stage director), Malgorzata Szczesniak (Set and costume design), Felice Ross (Lighting designer), Christian Longchamp (Dramaturge), Claude Bardouil (Choreography), Denis Guéguin (Video designer), Stéphane Metge (TV Direction)
Filmed live in July 2016 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, France
Picture format (High Definition) 1080i0i - 16.9; sound formats: a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/16 bit; b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz
In Italian (original language), subtitles in Italian, English, German, French


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