Handel's 'Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno'
impresses GIUSEPPE PENNISI
impresses GIUSEPPE PENNISI
When young George Frideric Handel made Rome his main base in 1707-08, public performances of operas were banned by Papal decree, but the Saxon composer had ample opportunity to write cantatas and oratorios, forms closely related to opera. One of his patrons was Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili who enjoyed a good status as a poet and wrote several texts for Handel. One of these is Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno ('The Triumph of Time and Enlightenment — over Beauty and Pleasure'). It was performed successfully in the Pamphili Palace, most likely for a musical evening after a banquet. It calls for four singers and a small ensemble of eighteen instruments. There is no real plot but rather a philosophical discussion among four stylized allegoric characters: Beauty, Pleasure, Time and Enlightenment. Beauty is tempted by Pleasure to continue a life of thoughtless diversion and sensuality, but is warned by Time and Enlightenment that such a path will lead to corruption and death. After a six movement ('concerto grosso') introduction, the work consists in a series of tripartite ABA arias with a few duets and trios and a quartet for nearly two and a half hours. It seems that Pamphili had in mind an opera with Beauty often associated with the figure of Mary Magdalene and Pleasure with that of Mephistopheles. However the Papal ban prevented the development of Il Trionfo into an opera.
Handel was twenty-two years old when Il Trionfo was premiered, but he kept a lot of affection for this early work, revising it at least twice and using some of the best arias in later operas. A revision was presented in English at Covent Garden, as an oratorio not in dramatic or scenic form. Some fifteen years ago, mezzo Cecilia Bartoli suggested the staging as a low cost opera in Zürich: without changing a verse or a note, the plot became a discussion among four young people in an elegant restaurant. Also, due to the ingenious staging by Jürgen Flimm, Il Trionfo became a major hit of the Zürich opera house and was produced in several other towns in Germany and France. It also reached Italy, but only for a few evenings. I saw a production in Rimini in 2007 as a part of the Sagra Malatestana Festival. In that 2007 production, directed by Denis Krief, the plot revolved around a dinner party at a high class flat in a major European town. Both in Zürich and Rimini (as well as in Stuttgart and other cities where it was presented), the theatres are comparatively small. Thus when the decision was made to show the production in Milan and Berlin, Flimm had to drastically revise it. The new production is also signed by Gudrun Hartmann for staging, sets are by Erich Wonder and costumes by Florence von Gerkan.
On 7 February 2016, I saw and heard Il Trionfo at La Scala (with over two thousands seats as compared with seven hundred in Zürich and some one hundred and fifty in Rimini) on a Sunday afternoon non-subscription performance. Il Trionfo had had its La Scala debut, but the theatre was quite full, even though the Milan audience is rather conservative and shuns new titles. It had been attracted by good reviews and words of mouth.
Indeed, Il Trionfo is perhaps the best Jürgen Flimm production I have ever seen. The setting is the restaurant-brasserie in La Coupole in Boulevard de Montparnasse in Paris, an establishment inaugurated in 1927 and still quite well known for its fish, beer, wine and spirits. There are quite a few extras and mimes around the four characters. The philosophical discussion develops around a lot of eating and drinking. The oratorio becomes intense dramatic action. A long night until dawn when the La Coupole staff is cleaning the restaurant and Beauty (Martina Janková) opts to become a nun after having an affair with Pleasure (Lucia Cirillo) and long exchanges of views with Time (Leonardo Cortellazzi) and Enlightenment (Sara Mingardo). The action is dense and intense and the four singers are excellent. Martina Janková displays a clear lyric coloratura voice, whilst Lucia Cirillo and Sara Mingardo have darker textures. All have a wide register. Leonardo Cortellazzi is confirmed as a superb bari-tenor.
In the pit, Diego Fasolis conducted a small ensemble of soloists playing period instruments or instruments as close as possible to those of the eighteenth century, providing the right tints and colors. The audience was enthralled.Copyright © 9 February 2016 Giuseppe Pennisi