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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno HWV46a, Oratorio in two parts (1707); Italian libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili
Bellezza – Sabine Deveilhe (soprano)
Piacere – Franco Fagioli (countertenor)
Disinganno – Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Tempo – Michael Spyres (tenor)
Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm
rec. Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, France, July 2016 (co-production with the Opéra de Lille, Théâtre de Caen)
Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Set and Costume Designer: Małgorzata Szczęśniak Lighting: Felice Ross. Choreographer: Claude Bardouil. Video: Denis Guéguin
Picture format: NTSC 16:9 Colour
Sound formats: Stereo PCM 2.0/Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: Italian, French, English, German (sung in Italian)
ERATO DVD 9029 581936 [138 mins]

Composed when Handel was in his early twenties, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, was both his first and last oratorio. Twenty years after its premiere in Rome in 1707, Handel revised the work for performance in London, as the Italian-English composite Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verita. And, it was finally presented as The Triumph of Truth and Time in 1757, in an English-language version which was probably put together by Handel’s amanuensis John Christopher Smith.

Full of youthful exuberance, its virtuosic score proved a rich quarry for several of Handel’s later works, but Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno is more of a debate than a drama. Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili’s libretto – loosely based on Petrarch’s sixth ‘triumph’, Trionfo del Tempo – is a moral allegory presenting a philosophical dialogue between Piacere (Pleasure), Tempo (Time) and Disinganno (Disenchantment, or more properly in Handel’s musical context, Enlightenment, though not in this production – see below) on matters of time and human transience, as they do battle for the soul of Beauty who is torn between the incompatible charms of hedonism and heaven.

Pamphili’s didactic moralising is tempered, however, by the human drama conveyed by Handel’s music and despite its apparent dramatic impediments and limitations, there have been several recent attempts to stage Il trionfo, including Jürgen Flimms’ 2003 Zurich production (review, Madrid revival 2008).
Krzysztof Warlikowski’s dramatic rendering, as staged at Aix-en-Provence last summer, starts with a movie. During the overture, we see Beauty and her lover bopping in a nightclub, popping pills that they lick from Pleasure’s tongue and pass from mouth to mouth. The wide-eyed exhilaration and ecstasy soon turn to sweaty distress, however, as the displacement of the vital rhythms by the Adagio solo violin and oboe signal the young man’s drug-induced collapse and transference to an emergency ward. Beauty’s parents bend anxiously over the stretcher bearing their unconscious daughter: her beau dies, but she survives, to awaken – pale, with panda-eyes and tear-streaked cheeks – in what seems to be an austere rehab unit. It is staffed by a bored nurse who leans against a fence, smoking a cigarette, while her patient gazes into a compact-mirror – which falls from the pocket of her black leather jacket as she leans nauseously against a tree – and laments the ephemeral nature of her allure.

Pamphili’s Bellezzaa is Everyman. So, designer Malgorzata Szczesniak creates a cinema-cum-theatre set, which projects back at us a morality play in which the conundrums facing our abstract ‘self’ serve as a warning of the mortal and eternal dangers of indifference to temporal and divine imperatives. The ‘mirroring’ is apt, given that it is the truth of the mirror that Bellazza fears. And, Szczesniak splits the stage into two symmetrical halves: stage right is the hospital bed, stage left the office desk, equipped with typewriter, desk-lamp and fan where Tempo and Disinganno do their paperwork – are they posting funeral announcements? – and an enamel sink at which Bellazza cleans her teeth in an effort to purge herself of the decaying effects of her profligate pleasure-seeking. Centre-stage, dividing the parallel halves, is a tower of glass which serves as a discotheque and drugs-den.

Other than the tenor role of Tempo, all the soloists would have been male in Handel’s Rome – no opera, and certainly no women on stage – but here Bellezza is sung with radiance, thrilling richness, and also touching frailty by French soprano Sabine Deveilhe. She dazzles in Handel’s glittering cascades, uses ornamentation with exquisite expressiveness, and displays an astonishing agility, leaping cleanly to the stratosphere and back with startling ease. At times, Deveilhe is surprisingly fierce, snarling through the upward appoggiaturas, flashing sparks at the top, but in the Part 2 aria in which she comes to her fate-sealing decision to spurn Piacere she exhibits a paradoxical and touching combination of emotional fragility and sincerity which conveys through impressive strength of tone and control of line.

Deveilhe acts well too – although some of her numbers are blighted by directorial fussiness, as when she turns the lights on and off jitteringly during racing string passagework. This Bellezza is both captivated and repelled by sleazy Piacere with his silver lamé jacket and blue shades, and in their duet their voices entwine beautifully through triplet loops, brilliantly echoed by a pair of oboes, as he smears her mouth with blood-red lipstick.

The Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli is a powerful pill-popping Piacere, exhibiting an astonishing range – his Act 2 aria sinks ever lower without Fagioli slipping into a chest voice – and a soprano-like plushness. He has real heft and the angularity of his first aria is ominously unsettling. But, it is Piacere’s last attempt to lure Bellezza into a life of ephemeral decadence, ‘Lascia la spina’ (which later became ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo), which is the emotional peak of the oratorio, and here Fagioli communicates, though controlled lyricism and phrasing, all of Handel’s moral ambiguity: so serenely beautiful is this aria, why or how on earth would anyone resist its charms, which seem an embodiment of timelessness and truth?

Tempo and Disinganno are presented not merely as abstractions but as representatives of an older, wiser generation. Contralto Sara Mingardo (who has recorded Il trionfo before, with Concerto Italiano for Naïve, and last year appeared in a revival of Flimm’s production at Staatsoper Unter den Linden) is an eloquent Disinganno, her arias characterised by amber richness and mahogany depth. In particular, her final Part 2 aria is notable for the moving sincerity with which she imbues her lower register. Michael Spyres’ Tempo – his nature betrayed by the grey streaks in his resplendent locks – displays unexpected strength at the bottom of his tenor; though esteemed for his bel canto mellifluousness, Spyres is actually quite rasping at times, conveying his anger, frustration and despair when he fails to convince Bellezza that she’s heading for ruin, though he has no problem rattling off the stratospheric outbursts as required.

Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée first released Il trionfo for Virgin in 2007. Here, they provide characteristically vibrant accompaniments, which benefit particularly from the large, varied continuo ensemble which permits real range of colour and elaboration. There is a lot of rhythmic muscle too, as in the instrumental accents in the Act 2 quartet round the dinner table, in which Bellezza now dons the shades, to avoid acknowledging the inevitable truth. And the elaborate solos that Handel wrote for solo violin, oboe and organ are skilfully performed.

Though not absolutely convinced by Warlikowski’s concept, I could live with it … until the closing episodes, that is. When Disinganno shows Bellezza the mirror of a truth that Piacere cannot bear but which, if accepted, will allow one to transcend the mortal chains of time and become at one with divine eternity, Bellezza makes her choice, smashing her earthly mirror and dedicating herself to God. At the close of her final number, ‘Tu del ciel ministro eletto’ Handel eschews rhetoric: voice and obbligato violin simply diminuendo and slip into the silence of timelessness. The slow da capo aria is in some ways a rejoinder to Piacere’s ‘Lascia la spina’. But, in Warlikowski’s hands it is a rejection of transcendence: an old woman in a fur coat gazes impassively from the stalls; Piacere looks in a mirror and sheds a tear; Bellezza changes her silver drop-earrings for pearls and white wedding-grab, though her red lips speak of rebellion, and slashes her wrist with a shard of glass from the broken mirror.

The DVD booklet contains photographs of the Aix set, a brief synopsis but no list of numbers or other track details; and, we are also not provided with the programme booklet article available to theatre-goers last summer in which Warlikoswki, in the words of one reviewer ‘expresses his outrage at the dogmatism of this libretto’. But, we get some inkling of the ideas and connections driving the director’s narrative in the 1983 film Ghost Dance which is interpolated between the oratorio’s two parts. Thus, after Piacere has confessed his fear that Bellezza will be swayed by Truth’s images of transience, we are presented with a pipe-clutching Jacques Derrida who pontificates pompously about cinema, psychoanalysis and Freud, in an interview with Pascale Ogier in which the latter is a portrait of lip-trembling, breathy, wide-eyed adulation.

Presumably, then, that explains the cast of scantily clad young women who people the theatre-set stalls: they are the ghosts of those who did not listen when warned that their youth and beauty would fade, die and never return. And, it explains why Bellezza’s dead lover reappears – takes a seat in the theatre stalls, crawls onto the hospital bed, takes off his clothes and dances with wild, head-wrangling abandon in the central glass tower on the windows of which his former beloved has pasted a photo-booth strip of his youthful beauty. And why, as he writhes in silent-disco euphoria to an altogether different beat to Handel’s score, Bellezza struggles out of her buckled shoes and dons her dead lover’s T-shirt and jeans, and beneath the dazzling beams of a silver disco-ball, Piacere smiles smugly, his feet perched insolently on the set-theatre seats.

When Bellezza joins her ghostly lover in his glass refuge from reality, while Piacere plays with the mirror, does she believe that she can defeat Time? When she slashes her wrist, does she join him in a haunting hinterland where the party still goes on? Ironically, if this production is Warlikoswki’s ode to hedonism, no one actually seems to have much fun.

Claire Seymour

Previous review (Blu-ray): Michael Cookson


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