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Posts Tagged ‘Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno’

While it is still discussed if Handel’s Semele or Hercules are operas or oratorios, this is not the case of Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, premièred in Rome in 1707, where there was a ban on operatic performances. On writing the libretto for something closer to a cantata than to an oratorio, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili could hardly have any concern about dramatic action, so it is not Jürgen Flimm’s fault if his old staging for the Opernhaus Zürich cannot make much of an allegory on the development of physical beauty into spiritual beauty. The word “development” is intentionally used here: the parts of Beauty and Pleasure do show some evolution, while Time and Truth are rather cardboard “characters”. Considering this essential problem, Flimm’s concept is a priori interesting: the “action” is set on something of a 1940’s hotel bar. Beauty is some sort of demi-mondaine and protegée of some sort of Countess Geschwitz (Pleasure) – Truth and Time have some sort of mission, which is to “rescue” Beauty and show her the precariousness of her situation and open her eyes to reality. In keeping with the allegorical nature of the work, the whole atmosphere is Fellini-esque with many surrealistic extras with semi-parallel plots. As far as this goes, the idea seems to work – but, alas, there is some silliness going on here: Time is clownish; Truth is a bit lesbian-chic (and, yes, Pleasure too…); literal associations are often made (when the word “boat” is quoted, sailors appear… for no specific purpose) and, in the end, Beauty becomes a nun (?!). Why doesn’t she simply get a regular job? Handel’s sublime music does not deserve either a simplistic or a mock solution…

Marc Minkowski knows this score for a long while: he recorded it in 1988 and was one of the conductors associated with performances of this very production in Zürich. Comparing this evening with his old recording is a fascinating experience – the Musiciens du Louvre have a warmer sound today, the accents are more theatrical, but his choice of tempi is adapted by the needs of the production and, most of all, his present cast – far less ideal than the one in studio. This seems to have had an effect of weakening the conductor’s expressive purposes. The first part had its lackadaisical moments – the orchestra had to be reined-in for some singers, arias that required soloists with more tonal coloring abilities were left wanting – but it gained in purpose in the second part and finally paid off in a truly otherworldly Tu del ciel ministro (a desert-island number for ever Handelian)

Sylvia Schwartz’s grainy pellucid soprano does not suggest any sensuousness at the first part of the work or any angelical clarity of tone for the second one, but she showed herself never than fully committed – tackling her divisions with gusto (maybe because Cecilia Bartoli sang the role of Pleasure in Zürich, the difficult aria Un pensiero nemico is transferred to Pleasure here), never shying away from trills and finding true Innigkeit in Io sperai and, although less than vocally pure for the last aria, her spiritual concentration in it offered more than compensation. Inga Kalna’s voice too is devoid of sensuousness and rather harsh and blowsy – sometimes I had the impression that she was trying to channel Bartoli, what could be considered an advantage in terms of panache and crispy delivery of the text and a disadvantage in what regards lack of focus, legato and straightforward vocal production. What she does have is impressively clear coloratura and a very long breath. She could find a way to soften her tone for Lascia la spina and charm the audience there. I still have memories of Ann Hallenberg, but what Kalna could offer there was sincere and ultimately convincing – she is also a very good actress. Delphine Galou (Disinganno) is a stylish Handelian who offered some of the most satisfying singing this evening, but she is no Nathalie Stutzmann. This is the first time I see her live and cannot say if this was a bad-voice day, but her low register this evening did not have the impact and solidity of a Stutzmann, of a Sara Mingardo, of a Sonia Prina. Charles Workman’s singing has many hard angles and his Italian is not truly idiomatic, but his voice was refreshingly hearable in comparison to his colleagues.

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A month ago I wrote down my first impressions on Emmanuelle Haïm’s recording of Handel’s first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. At that point, I hadn’t listened to the two other official recordings, Rinaldo Alessandrini’s and Marc Minkowski’s, and could only compare it to a broadcast from Luzern with Giovanni Antonini and the Giardino Armonico. Now that I have been able to hear all these recordings, one could say I am more prepared to give an opinion on this work’s discography – but the truth is this is a difficult task. All three recordings are very good, but none of them is really ideal.

Minkowski recorded his Trionfo back at the 80’s and I am sure he himself would not consider this his “definitive” account of the work. His recent performances live in Zürich and in Paris could maybe make it to the gramophone so that we could check that. As it is, his early recording has a pleasant raw energy, but I guess only in Tempo’s Urne voi I would recognize this conductor’s hallmark surprising theatrical gestures. I am not sure about his rather sprightly Tu del ciel ministro eletto. Although his cast is hardly immaculate, it is a very good one. Isabelle Poulenard’s Bellezza has its edgy moments, but is amazingly accurate in her divisions and expressive and intelligent in her use of the text. Unfortunately, the crucial final aria is rather blank. Nathalie Stutzmann is a stern and pitch-dark toned Disinganno and John Elwes is probably the most smoothly sung Tempo in the discography. Only Jennifer Smith is a serious piece of miscasting. Her voice has not truly sensuous and the coloratura taxes her.

Rinaldo Alessandrini’s recording is a far safer choice – his orchestra is in great shape and his tempi are always reliable and theatrically right. I am afraid no-one would be happy with his dance-like Lascia la spina. Even if this makes sense musically and probably dramatically speaking, I am afraid we are too used to the intensity of Rinaldo’s Lascia ch’io pianga. Deborah York’s crystalline flexible soprano is comfortable with the technical demands made on her, but her tone is too boyish for the right effect in this music. Her Un pensiero nemico di pace is thoroughly sung but the results are rather unexciting and her final aria – again! – lacks pathos. Gemma Bertagnoli’s Piacere is more verbally specific than her rivals but her attitude can be exaggerated now and then. Some of her repeats are a bit misguided too. Sara Mingardo is a discrete and velvety-toned Disinganno, but Nicholas Sears is uncomfortable with the part of Tempo’s low tessitura.

My first impression on Emmanuelle Haïm’s recording was similar to most reviewers’ – she is trying (as usual) really hard to make her point and some of her ideas sound rather artifficial (the most notable example is Urne voi), but it is undeniable that her orchestra’s playing is terrific and that she has what is closer to be the best cast in the discography. Natalie Dessay has a certain fondness for overdecorating her repeats and too coquettish an approach for this piece, but sings more exquisitely than all her rivals. No other Piacere can compete with Ann Hallenberg in coloratura abilities. Her voice doesn’t always suggest sensuousness, but she sings the best Lascia la spina here and goes for a breathtakingly fast Come nembo. Sonia Prina is the most incisive and expressive Disinganno in recordings and, even if Pavol Breslik has his rough moments, he has no problems with the low tessitura and generally handles well his divisions.

I still miss the emotional sincerity of Giovanni Antonini in his broadcast from Luzern. He is the kind of conductor who goes straight to the heart of the matter and scores his points on not trying to force his points in the composer’s score. His Bellezza, Laura Aikin, has some problems with her runs, but is miles ahead of the competition in conveying her “character”‘s development. Neither can Véronique Gens challenge Ann Hallenberg in fioriture, but her voice is far more seductive than those from the sopranos featured in the official recording. Cristoph Prégardien’s beauty of tone is similarly unchallenged. And Sonia Prina is always faultless in Handel. I still would like the Opernhaus Zürich to release on DVD their staging of this oratorio, in which Isabel Rey offered a most intelligent account of the part of Bellezza and Marijana Mijanovic was at her best as Disinganno.

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