Academy of Ancient Music: Il Trionfo del Tempo

’Tis Nature’s Voice
Handel: Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (HWV46a)
Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings 
Milton Court, 11 May 2023

Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno was Handel’s first oratorio. It was composed a year after his 1707 arrival in Italy after three years in Hamburg where he exchanged his early career as a cathedral organist (in Halle) to that of a fledgling opera composer. He quickly fell in with an influential group of patrons in Rome, including Cardinal Pamphili who provided the libretto for Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. Usually translated as The Triumph of Time and Disillusion, the alternative option of Time and Enlightenment was used for this excellent performance from the Academy of Ancient Music.

It is a wonderful example of Handel’s youthful enthusiasm that burst into life during his time in Italy, resulting in other masterpieces such as La resurrezione, like Il Trionfo, composed as an oratorio at a time when opera was banned in Rome. Both are operas in all but name, with clear characters and successions of recitatives and arias. In her excellent programme essay, Ruth Smith refers to oratorio as “opera of the mind”. While La resurrezione is religious, Il Trionfo is moralistic with philosophical overtones and religious undertones. As conductor Laurence Cummings noted during the pre-concert talk, “God gets very few mentions”.

There are four characters. The main focus is on Beauty, a young woman, presumably approaching her mid-teens. Pleasure is “a charming 16-year-old young man” who tries to enveigle Beauty into his less than moralistic escapades. Given the age of the character, it is a soprano role, but in this performance, it was portrayed as an entirely feminine role. Enlightenment is an older man, sung by a countertenor, in a slightly detached uncle-like figure imparting wisdom to the initially errant young lady. Time is a tenor, here detached from the usual romantic operatic tenor role by reflecting on the inevitable decline that the young beauty will suffer. Time and Enlightenment try to influence Beauty to follow their guidance, rather than that of Pleasure.

Pamphili’s libretto is a considerable step up from the later operatic texts that Handel worked with. It is worth reading on its own. But it is Handel’s music that triumphs in exploring the psychological depths of the characters, particularly Beauty as she grows into (apparent) maturity. Pleasure’s penultimate aria before he/she finally admitted defeat is Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa, which was later recast as the famous Lascia ch’io pianga in the opera Rinaldo. Other musical ideas from Il trionfo also later appear in La Resurrezione, Agrippina, Radamisto, Deborah, Parnasso in Festa and Serse, and the oratorio itself was reincarnated in 1737 as Il trionfo del Tempo e della Verità and in 1757 as The Triumph of Time and Truth.

A particularly telling musical moment for Pleasure came when the scene changed to his white marble palace full of visual reminders of the joys he was offering. Amongst the statues of “meandering youths” is a real-life “graceful youth” who “awakens wondrous delight with enchanting sounds … (as he) performs feats beyond mortal skill”. Cue an extended pastiche of contemporary Italian keyboard style that continues into the following aria. It reveals little of Handel’s own inventive keyboard compositional skills but seems to display the shallowness of Pleasures life and artistic accoutrements. On this occasion, the “graceful youth” whose fingers certainly displayed “feats beyond mortal skill” was Alistair Ross.

The always excellent instrumentalists of The Academy of Ancient Music also included special moments from Bojan Čičić and Persephone Gibbs, violins, Sarah McMahon, cello, Joel Raymond and Oonagh Lee, oboes. Laurence Cummings direction was compelling and insightful, if occasionally a little rapid.

The impressive vocal soloists were Sophie Junker, Beauty, Anna Dennis, Pleasure, Reginald Mobley, Enlightenment, and Nick Pritchard, Time. It was a well-chosen cast, with outstanding singing. I was particularly impressed with Sophie Junker’s exquisite grasp of Handelian style, not least in performing beautifully articulated trills – still a rare occurence amongst singers today.

There is a link to download the full programme here. It is worth reading.