A TRIUMPH FOR IL TRIONFO DEL TEMPO
George Frederick Handel, ‘Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno’ (1707), Amanda Forsythe, soprano (Beauty), Krisztina Szabó, soprano (Pleasure), Reginald L. Mobley, alto (Disillusion), Colin Balzer, tenor (Time), Pacific Baroque Orchestra conducted by Alexander Weimann; Chan Centre, August 7, 2014.
Early Music Vancouver has always given us the most distinguished summer festivals and this year was no exception. Starting from harpsichordist Colin Tilney’s 80th birthday celebration, through an appearance of Sequentia, to a final concert by Les Voix Baroques, the crowning glory of this two week event was the performance of Handel’s very first oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707), with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann. This continues the ensemble’s series of Handel performances from a widely-acclaimed Orlando in 2012 and a very successful Israel in Egypt last summer; with Theodora following in the regular season.
While Il Trionfo del Tempo was ignored for countless years, the past two decades have seen a remarkable surge of interest in it; we in fact now have seven fine recordings of it. The interest is completely justified. The music is innovative, compelling and fully cohesive, and the range of vocal expression is remarkable; the arias in particular are lovely. But of course it does not fit the prototype mould of Handel’s later oratorios. It has no chorus, the musical influences are consistently Italian (it largely follows Italian cantata style) and the simple allegorical development of a discourse between Beauty and Pleasure on one hand, and Time and Disappointment on the other, does not constitute the richest dramatic palette to work from.
This performance was quite magnificent; concentrated and moving from beginning to end. Conductor Alexander Weimann allowed both the orchestra and soloists ample room to relish all the virtuoso delights in this music, but he also brought strength to the many moments of contemplation and indecision that also prevail. The dramatic key here, I think, was the conductor’s insight into what Handel’s ingenious setting actually implies: that while ‘Time’ is a character in the discourse, time itself naturally moves forward as the dialogue proceeds in the work. As Beauty contemplates her decision to recant from a life of fleeting superficialities and commit to one of more enduring riches, we surely know – even as she contemplates – that time is ticking by. This idea is likely suggested from the extended pauses in the overture, but it becomes much more explicit as we move into the second part of the work. Handel’s ingenious rhythms take on an ominous ‘tick tock’ gait (with emphatic down-bowing) at one moment, a jig-jog trot at the next, to continue in many forms inexorably right to the very end.. Alexander Weimann’s pacing here was impeccable, giving just the right rhythmic emphasis and gravitas to allow us to feel the building urgency in the Beauty’s situation. Overall, the Pacific Baroque Orchestra (here around 20 players) played extremely well at judicious tempos, often achieving light and airy string textures, with the viol/oboe accompaniments in the arias particularly telling. Only fleetingly were there any uncertainties in ensemble, and only on one occasion did I feel that the orchestra was being pushed too hard.
Of course, the rest of the story is the vocalists, and they were absolutely excellent. The voices were so nicely differentiated, though each could move out to similar displays of athletic virtuosity when called for. As is well known by now, soprano Amanda Forsythe’s vocal control and sense of Baroque style is quite formidable, though it took me a while to understand how she was portraying Beauty. This was in no sense a serene or tender portrayal from the outset, rather a buoyant, confident, almost brazen Beauty, full of virtuoso cut and thrust, with strong accents and dynamics, and angular projection. Coupled with the ‘whiteness’ at the top of her register and her intensity, this was certainly strong and distinctive. But, as it turns out, that was the point: it is only when Beauty ultimately yields at the end of the second part that we see her vulnerable side, her emotions and her ‘true’ beauty. The soprano’s closing aria, ‘Pure immortal beings…’ was incredibly inward and touching.
Soprano Krisztina Szabó, who played Beauty’s handmaid, Pleasure, constituted a lovely foil, being altogether warmer, more beguiling and more shaped in phrasing. There are so many things that Szabó can do well; her beautiful aria, ‘Leave the thorn…’ was compellingly negotiated, strong and deeply felt, with subtle dynamics. One also had to fall in love with the soft liquid tones of Alto Reginald L. Mobley (Disappointment), who managed to bring an almost otherworldly feeling to his part while, at the same time, always conveying deep feeling. This was apparent right from his first aria, ‘That in a single day…’, which revealed his lovely intuitive sense of legato line and unique vocal timbre. Tenor Colin Balzer, as Time, naturally cut a much stronger figure, balancing eloquence with a declamatory tone in very fine style, finding considerable interpretative strength and space in his presentations.
With elegant ensemble work from the soloists, there was really not a weak link in this performance. The performance impressed so greatly because it always put such store in musical values and executed in such a natural way. As a strongly-enthusiastic audience at the Chan Centre surely learned, Il Trionfo del Tempo is a forgotten masterpiece no longer!
© Geoffrey Newman 2014