Organ of pleasure
Queen Elizabeth Hall
George Frideric Handel: Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno
Joanne Lunn (Bellezza), Roberta Invernizzi (Piacere), Sara Mingardo (Disinganno), Nicholas Sears (Tempo)
Rinaldo Alessandrini (conductor)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Handel started his composing career in Lutheran Saxony, blossomed in Counter-reformation Italy and ended his days in Counter-counter-reformation Anglican London. Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (or The triumph of time and truth), which ends the South Bank's "Discovering Handel" season, was both his first oratorio and his last, revised in an English version two years before his death. Its original libretto has all the hallmarks of its context in baroque Rome, including the disinganno in the title, and the focal figure of Bellezza, gazing in the mirror and eventually seeing decay like the repentant Magdalene. As a musical work, it has something in common with the allegorical or divine prologue of Monteverdi's and Cavalli's operas, and also with the operas themselves, with extensive and wordy recitatives that contain a lot of exposition, miniature arias and dramatically determined ensembles.
But Il trionfo not only contains music that Handel recycled throughout his life, it also seems to foreshadow themes and situations to which he returned. Passages of music recur, most famously "Lascia la spina", but a sensual theme that introduces Beauty's first awareness of mortality also reappears in the Ariodante and Alcina ballets and then in the ritornello of "Happy they" in Jephtha. The contest of luscious soprano Pleasure versus heroic mezzo Truth and tenor Time for the possession of soprano Beauty has something both musically and thematically with that of Alcina and Bradamante (with baritone support) for Ruggiero. The organ symphony as the epitome of pleasure is inverted many years later as St Cecilia's organ in Alexander's feast. The evocation of ethical types reappears in secular form in L'allegro. More generally, throughout Handel's work, there seems to be a contest over musical pleasure that is ultimately resolved in music of extreme sensuousness that evokes spiritual or intellectual bliss. The stunning final aria of Il trionfo, "Pure del Cielo intellegenze eterne", does this in the same way as "Streams of pleasure", the vision of heavenly bliss at the end of Theodora, and there is also a duet for Truth and Time that recalls "As steals the morn", which does a similar job at the end of L'allegro.
But although there are passages of Il trionfo that are unmistakeably Handel's, much of it is in itself undistinguished, weighed down by a shapeless libretto heavy on argument. Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment found every speck of excitement and beauty in it, though. Particularly distinguished was Paul Nicholson, taking the composer's spot as the beauteous youth at the organ, but the entire performance was never less than delightful.
The singers were more uneven, though all were at least good. Joanne Lunn heroically stepped in in the early afternoon as Bellezza, and was more or less reading the role. It would normally be unfair to comment on her performance in these circumstances, but she sang gloriously with apparent ease, especially in the final aria. There were heavy cuts to give her a chance to get through the music, which left you wishing (unfairly of course) for more. Roberta Invernizzi in contrast seemed so well prepared as Piacere that although at times she sounded gorgeous, and gave Lascia la spina total allure, at other times she seemed to be disappearing into the music, becoming either introspective or simply careless. Sara Mingardo in contrast was rock solid as Disinganno. She has an incredibly beautiful low voice, rich rather than heavy like Ewa Podles, and impeccable coloratura. Nicholas Sears got the short straw in what must be the first of Handel's many thankless tenor roles, and sang reliably. His best moment was in the duet with Mingardo, when their voices worked amazingly together in spite of the contrasts of tessitura and timbre.