08 November 2008

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - IL TRIONFO DEL TEMPO E DEL DISINGANNO (R. Invernizzi, K. Aldrich, M. Oro, J. Dürmüller; Hyperion)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (HWV46a): R. Invernizzi (Bellezza), K. Aldrich (Piacere), M. Oro (Disinganno), J. Dürmüller (Tempo); Academia Montis Regalis; Alessandro de Marchi [recorded in Oratorio Santa Croce, Sala Ghislieri, Mondovi, 12 – 16 June 2007; Hyperion CDA67681/2]

Händel’s 1707 Italian oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno—his first effort in the genre that owes its genesis to a long-standing ban on operatic performances within the Papal States—remains somewhat mysterious, even after three previous studio recordings (conducted by Marc Minkowski, Rinaldo Alessandrini, and Emmanuelle Haïm, respectively). Like many of the Roman oratorios of the period, Trionfo is essentially an opera in all but name: the score lacks the choruses that would become the emotional and structural cornerstones of Händel’s great English oratorios, and the musical gestures more closely resemble those of Händel’s Italian operas. It is also perhaps significant that Händel borrowed extensively from Trionfo in crafting his Italian operas for London.

The conundrum of Trionfo, however, comes in interpretation. What is at the core of the piece, if the overall scope of such a complex work can even be refined into a single point? Is this a religious parable, a sort of musical retelling of the Biblical account of Job’s torments, crisis of faith, and eventual enlightenment? The best colloquial English translation of the problematic Disinganno is, after all, Enlightenment. Perhaps, though, this is an allegory, as many of Händel’s English oratorios would later be, representing figures in social or liturgical politics no longer remembered by history. Or is Trionfo at its heart a prototypical ‘rescue’ opera that hurtles towards tragedy until an unanticipated (and somewhat ironic) catharsis at the dénouement renders a peaceful resolution? The truth likely exists somewhere in a blend of these possibilities. Händel, whose abilities as a musical dramatist with an inborn flair for characterization and translating deeply twisted emotions into music of utter simplicity elevated his work above the level achieved by most if not all of his theatre-based contemporaries, was ever keenly aware of every inherent expressive tick in a turn of phrase, a rhetorical gesture, a pregnant pause. Perhaps Händel, still only twenty-two years old and fresh from his first musical—including operatic—successes in Hamburg, was feeling his way, imagining the first glimpses on his musical horizon of Rodelinda and Cleopatra, who seduce and sigh, weep and tease, fall in love and fume with fury. If Trionfo is not the great dramas of the future, it was the great drama of the present and an opportunity for Händel to explore in a cognizant, financially-secure setting the extraordinary strengths of musical portraiture that would enthrall a nation and secure his place among the ranks of the finest composers ever to set quill to parchment.

To suggest that Alessandro de Marchi presents in the context of this performance a concentrated attempt at analyzing the enigma of Trionfo would be disingenuous and would likely put off many readers from hearing the recording. If anything was learned during the early days of the Baroque revival, it was that performing (and recording) a Baroque score as an academic experiment was wrong-headed and destined for failure. The way in which de Marchi succeeds most significantly in this recording is in his careful attention to the balance between the grandiose sentiments of the text and the contained refinement of the score. Though displaying Händel’s youthful mastery of both orchestral and vocal writing to its fullest extent, Trionfo nonetheless is not among the truly remarkable and masterfully inventive scores of Händel’s later maturity, and de Marchi largely avoids the trap set for modern conductors who, in hindsight, approach Trionfo with the outsized grandeur more appropriate for Händel’s towering operatic scores. Splendidly played by the Academia Montis Regalis, de Marchi’s account of the score is all the more effective for being wholly within the natural parameters imposed by the music.

De Marchi’s most damaging failure in this performance, however, is the lack of emotional engagement. Even when the music-making is quite beautiful, as it often is, there is a conspicuous lack of involvement with the psychological element of the text. When the characters in a piece are Beauty, Pleasure, Enlightenment, and Time, one must assume that there should rightly be a measure of passion in the discourse. De Marchi’s restraint is not unwelcome as it can be tremendously disconcerting to hear any score performed with interpretive gestures out of proportion with the music (which is the case to some extent with the Haïm performance with Natalie Dessay as Bellezza), but restraint should not completely dispel the emotional impact of the music. The extraordinarily moving moments in Trionfo are here ironed out to create an even topography that produces what, in the final analysis, seems a nice piece with some lovely music of little meaning.

There is, however, a measure of good singing to be heard, though none of the individual soloists would be clearly preferable to rivals on the other recordings. Singing Bellezza, soprano Roberta Invernizzi brings to her task a voice with unimpeachable virtuosity and a somewhat ‘white’ placement that are reminiscent of Dame Emma Kirkby. Invernizzi is a resourceful and accomplished singer, but her tone lacks fullness in this music. She displays an admirable desire to allow the music to speak for itself, but when sung with such a lack of color and nuance one quickly discovers that, without these vital contributions, it has not all that much to say. Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, whose assignments have ranged from Monteverdi’s Ottavia to Bellini’s Adalgisa and Verdi’s Amneris, brings a more substantial voice to Piacere. Aldrich sings gracefully and well but without the complete stylishness that can render Händel singing truly memorable. Aldrich maintains a good line, however, in Piacere’s famous ‘Lascia la spina’ (which would eventually become Almirena’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo, one of Händel’s most celebrated ‘pathetic airs’ and one of the most famous vocal compositions of the eighteenth century). Tenor Jörg Dürmüller brings even tone and an apt technique but too little temperament to Time. Enlightenment is sung here by countertenor Martin Oro, an admirable singer with a firm and pleasing voice. Little is known about the circumstances of the first performance of Trionfo, and Disinganno may well have been composed for an alto castrato. The ethereal tone of a countertenor that is so inherently right for Britten’s Oberon somehow seems wrong for Händel’s Disinganno, however, at least in this setting. This does not detract from Oro’s excellent singing, and indeed the singing of all four principals never falters from a very high standard of achievement.

In the end, none of the lingering questions about the interpretive elusiveness of Trionfo are answered by this recording. An equally vital and perhaps ultimately more important question that is raised by the appearance of any Baroque score that is not in the mainstream repertory concerns the overall quality of the music. Following in the path of the recordings by Minkowski, Alessandrini, and Haïm, does this set prove that Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno is a score worth hearing? The answer to this question can only be emphatically affirmative. All four recordings of Trionfo reveal to even the casual Händelian not only how far the Master traveled from his earliest vocal works to the great operas of his full maturity but also just how advanced he was as a beginner.