Handel: Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno

Academia Montis Regalis/Alessandro de Marchi (Hyperion CDA67681/2)

15 June 2008 3.5 stars

Il trionfo del Tempo e del DisingannoIl trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno was Handel's first oratorio. Written in his early twenties, the work came about after the composer's move to Rome from Florence in late 1706. On arrival in Rome, Handel attracted the attentions of a rich benefactor, the Marquis Ruspoli, and a well-connected librettist, Benedetto Pamphili, who provided him with the text of the oratorio.

The piece is a dramatic moral allegory in which Beauty (Belezza, a young woman) is lectured by Pleasure (Piacere, a young man), Enlightenment (Disinganno, an older man) and Father Time (Tempo), each of whom tries to convince her to follow his path of conduct. With convenient inevitability, Beauty renounces Pleasure and goes down the road of Enlightenment.

The libretto is quite beautifully written, and there are some intriguing moments in the piece, but I have to say that I find the overall impression rather stilted (in terms of the text, not the music). Although Handel succeeds in infusing the libretto with humanity, the text is at once so aggressive in its moral stance and dense in its insistence on asking philosophical questions at every turn that I, for one, couldn't help but long for the sexiness of Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano's dark portrayal of humanity, or the sheer force of the story of Solomon. For instance, when Tempo turns to Bellezza and pontificates, 'A weak glance turned towards the sun's rays cannot withstand the great light; / you may blame the sun, yet it is the senses at fault', can we help but feel sorry for the poor girl at being preached at by the grey-bearded man? As Ruth Smith hints at in her liner notes, Disinganno may take his name from Enlightenment but he represents 'insight' rather than the philosophy of the 'Enlightenment period' and is similarly domineering towards Bellezza. Indeed, the almost sadistic title says it all: 'The Triumph of Time and Enlightenment' is about two older men ganging up together and forcing a younger girl to do their will. It's amazing that the fun-loving, forward-looking Handel was inspired by the text at all.

But inspired he was, and the score, at least, is a masterpiece. The ornate opening orchestral movement, in three contrasting movements, sets the tone for the rest of the work, which is never less than beautiful. Also notable is Piacere's aria 'Lascia la spina', which Handel later reused in Rinaldo as the more famous 'Lascia ch'op pianga'.The problem with this new release on Hyperion is that while it's played and sung very well, there are already several excellent recordings on the market. And what's more, Marc Minkowski on Erato, Emmanuelle Haim on Virgin Classics and Rinaldo Alessandrini on Naïve all offer slightly more lavish casts than the one on offer here.

Nevertheless, there's a lot to enjoy here, thanks not least to the impeccable direction of Alessandro de Marchi. Without rushing excessively, De Marchi paces the score with such life that one needn't ponder too much on the text and can instead enjoy the pleasures of Handel's imagination (already fertile even in this early score). Listen to the jolly Organ Sonata in Part One and be delighted at the composer's exuberance. There's also room for plenty of nuance in the vocal movements, but the conductor never allows the singers to hold up proceedings in the distracting way that some Handelian conductors sometimes can.

Pick of the cast are the two women. Roberta Invernizzi has a plush tone as Bellezza, and as Piacere, Kate Aldrich employs vibrato tastefully to further enhance what is already a lavish voice. Both of them sing the text with rather more vigour than the two men and actually attempt to take us on a journey; it's a bit of a problem that Pleasure sounds far more appealing than Enlightenment, though, because it further intensifies the problem of Time and Enlightenment's pompousness posed by the text. Countertenor Martin Oro is just a little too careful with the vocal line and tends to homogenise his contributions as Disinganno, while I find Jörg Dürmüller's tenor on the dry side for such exposed vocal writing.

All the same, Hyperion's usual high standards apply here, with the period instrument ensemble Academia Montis Regalis captured with admirable clarity and the liner booklet is well designed and informative. Stunning playing and a strikingly inventive early score from a composer whose entire output still deserves further exploration make this an attractive release.

By Dominic McHugh