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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, oratorio in 2 parts (HWV 46a)

[A] Natalie Dessay (Bellezza), soprano; Ann Hallenberg (Piacere), mezzosoprano; Sonia Prina (Disinganno), contralto; Pavol Breslik (Tempo), tenor
Le Concert d'Astre
Dir: Emmanuelle Ham

rec: March 2004 & Jan 2006, Paris, IRCAM
Virgin Classics - 363428 2 (2 CDs) ( 2007) (2.25'35")

[B] Roberta Invernizzi (Bellezza), soprano; Kate Aldrich (Piacere), mezzosoprano; Martin Oro (Disinganno), alto; Jrg Drmller (Tempo), tenor
Academia Montis Regalis
Dir: Alessandro De Marchi

rec: June 12 - 16, 2007, Mondov, Oratorio Santa Croce (Sala Ghislieri)
Hyperion - CDA67681/2 (2 CDs) ( 2008) (2.17'26")

The oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno was the first contribution of the young Handel to the genre of the oratorio, which was very popular in Italy in the decades around 1700. It was performed in Rome in 1707. Often the term oratorio is exclusively associated with sacred subjects, but from a historical point of view that is one-sided. This oratorio proves that there is more to this genre than a work on a biblical subject, as often as this kind of subjects were indeed chosen. What we have here is a morality play, which is part of a long tradition in Western literature and music. One of the most famous works of this kind is Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo by Emilio de' Cavalieri, which was first performed in 1600. Another example is Seelewig by the German composer Johann Staden, which dates from 1644. In Italy this kind of oratorios were used as a tool to spread the message of the Counter Reformation.

The theme is simple: one person is tempted to look for happiness in earthly things, but characters around him are trying 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 beauty really is: something of this world, which is doomed to pass by, or (moral) truth which lasts eternally. Of course, Insight and Time win the argument as Beauty sees they are right.

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."

Within a couple of years two new recordings of this fine work have been released. As Emmanuelle Ham is a rather controversial figure in the early music scene it is to be expected that her interpretation would find staunch supporters as well as sharp critics. I am leaning towards the critics, even though I see some positive aspects.
Her performance certainly has a fair amount of drama and theatricality. There are some sharp contrasts between the A and B parts of arias and between arias, for instance in tempo. Her orchestra plays well and none of her singers is bad. But on the whole her interpretation is unbalanced and has a number of features which are outright annoying or tasteless or start to get on ones nerves as they are repeated ad nauseam.

First of all, from a stylistic point of view none of her singers is really satisfying. All have been overcome by the vibrato virus and none is singing in genuine baroque style. Although this happens more often than not, I still can't stand it and have to add it to the debit side. Even more serious - and, yes, extremely annoying - is the ornamentation, in particular in the dacapos. Generous ornamentation is a good thing, and I have no doubt Handel did expect that from his singers. But there is a difference between an oratorio and an opera, how close they may have been in style. More importantly, ornamentation doesn't mean rewriting whole lines. And that is exactly what happens here. Often the original lines by Handel are hardly recognizable. (This also seems to be fashionable these days as I noticed the same phenomenon in a recording of vocal music by Vivaldi). Needless to say that these 'ornamentations' - if you would use that word here - are not exactly improvements to what Handel has written down. Often on the contrary: more than once the rewritten lines are illogic, excessive or just tasteless. I also doubt whether these have been improvised - as composers expected from their singers. I suspect they are rather written down by Emmanuelle Ham, who has done so in previous recordings. And writing stylish ornamentation seems not to be her forte. The coloratura at the beginning of the dacapo in the quartet 'Voglio Tempo' is simply ludricous.

The choice of tempo is another matter. Sometimes the tempi of the arias are very high, but - probably surprising - more often they are slow, sometimes even extremely slow. Some tempi are on the verge of being ridiculous or really overstep the limit. The aria 'Crede l'uom' (Disinganno, Part 1) is so slow that musical figures become very unnatural and the music almost comes to a standstill. The closing aria of Bellezza, 'Tu del Ciel', is another example of a far too slow tempo. Stereotypical is the slowing down at the end of almost every B part, before turning to the dacapo of the A part.

The realisation of the basso continuo is also a matter of concern. There is too much differentation between the instruments within the continuo section in too short a space of time. Harpsichord, organ and lute certainly can all be used, but the constant shift from one to another is not really called for and quickly becomes stereotypical. The characteristic rhythm in the bass part of Bellezza's aria 'Venga il Tempo' (Part 1) - probably depicting the steps of Time - is completely destroyed by a very busy harpsichord.

Isn't there anything to cherish then? Apart from the things I started with very little indeed. The orchestra is playing well, and that is something to be happy about, because that is the problem with the other recording. So this gives me the opportunity to say something about that.

The real problem of the Academia Montis Regalis is that the intonation is often suspect. The most anxious moments are those where violins and oboes play unisono: most of the time they don't really blend because of intonation troubles. The oboes are particularly problematic; the solo oboe in Bellezza's aria 'Io sperai' (Part 2) is pretty shaky. It is a shame because there are moments when the orchestra is really good in expressing the affetti of an aria, for instance in Tempo's aria 'Urne voi' (Part 1), where the strings create a very appropriate eerie atmosphere. And in Piacere's aria 'Tu giusrasti' (Part 2) it is very powerful, whereas I find it too thin in the overture.

As far as the singers are concerned, the star of the show is Roberta Invernizzi. Not only is she a stylish singer, she also very convincingly portrays the trials and tribulations of Bellezza, more than Nathalie Dessay in Emmanuelle Ham's recording. But in my view the role of Piacere is miscast. According to Handel scholar Ruth Smith in the programme notes Piacere is a young man, a boy even, and therefore scored for a soprano. Although the tessitura of this role is a bit lower than that of Bellezza, and therefore rightly given to a mezzosoprano, Kate Aldrich's voice is too low and too heavy. Nobody would ever think of her singing the role of a boy/young man. She uses far too much vibrato, and as a result she doesn't blend well with Roberta Invernizzi in their duet 'Il voler' (Part 1).
Martin Oro hasn't a voice which immediately impresses, but he can do good things as I know from previous recordings and concerts. But here I find him disappointing, sometimes almost uninvolved. The same is true for Jrg Drmller, again a voice which I don't find very appealing. The aria ' ben folle' (Part 2) comes off rather well, but in particular in recitatives he often is too bland and lacks sense of drama.

De Marchi's performance avoids the eccentricities in regard to ornamentation which I noticed in Ms Ham's recording, but there are some strange things here too. In particular the extended and virtuoso violin solos in Piacere's aria 'Lascia la spina' (Part 2) and the closing aria 'Tu del Ciel' (Bellezza) are totally out of place. As elsewhere no such things happen with other instrumental obbligatos I wonder what Alessandro de Marchi was thinking.

Time to sum up. Both recordings have their merits, but the overall impression is rather negative. If I really need to make a choice I probably would go for De Marchi's recording. With all its shortcomings one gets at least one singer whose performances one can enjoy (Roberta Invernizzi). But it is a shame that otherwise it is largely a negative choice: the eccentricities in De Marchi's recording are more limited in number and size than in Ham's performance. The best thing is probably to go for an older recording by Rinaldo Alessandrini. I haven't heard it recently, so I can't give a detailed comparison, but I have good memories of his interpretation.

Lastly, the presentation. As for this review I had only access to a promotional copy of Emmanuelle Ham's recording, which came without a booklet, I can't say anything about the programme notes, texts and translations. Like I said the programme notes of the Hyperion recording are written by Ruth Smith, an eminent Handel scholar. She offers more than just notes; it is a complete essay about the work and its meaning and also includes an extensive synopsis. Those who decide not to purchase De Marchi's recording can still get Ruth Smith's excellent essay; the booklet can be downloaded from the Hyperion site.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

Academia Montis Regalis
Le Concert d'Astre

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