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There was never a more confident musician than Handel. This brash self-assurance spawned some of the great musical moments of Handel’s or any other century, not to mention biographical anecdotes redolent of an overweening ego. The assurance with which Handel dominated his musical material, whether of his own invention or of another composer’s, also fired his irrepressible urge to shine as a performer. No composer has surpassed Handel’s talent for inserting himself into the drama of his own music.
Handel left his native Germany as a twenty-one-year-old in 1706 to prove himself in the operatic big leagues of Italy. His four-year itinerary on the peninsula included sojourns in Florence, Naples, and Venice, but also Rome. He announced of his musical there in January of 1707 on the monumental organ in St. John Lateran where he “exhibited his prowess … to the admiration of everybody”–including himself, no doubt.
After this grand introduction Handel was soon the favourite of a cohort of cardinals, who were also lovers of music and of the male form–Handel’s being still in excellent shape, not yet having been expanded by his later gluttony. Within a few months Handel would set Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili’s allegorical text Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Truth); the work was performed by another cardinal’s private orchestra, one led by none other the greatest violinist of the age, Arcangelo Corelli. A papal ban on opera, whose sinful pleasures were thought to have helped provoke God to let loose a major earthquake a few years before, meant that these princes of the church had to retreat to the privacy of their own palaces and theatres to enjoy oratorios drawing on religious themes that provided sacred cover for the sensuous, blatantly operatic music they contained.
Pamphili’s libretto presents four allegorical figures –Bellezza (Beauty), Piacere (Pleasure), Tempo (Time), and Disinganno (Truth)–who argue the merits of hedonism as against the eternal rewards of heaven. Even a pleasure-loving cleric had to make the obligatory nod in the general direction of sensual abnegation. At the start of the piece, Piacere preaches the joy of sensual gratification to Bellezza, and assures her young and narcissistic charge that her physical beauty will endure. These addictive pleasure pills are relentlessly railed against by the kill-joy pair of Time and Truth, who sanctimoniously seduce the wavering Bellezza with promises of a heavenly afterlife free from the urges of the body. This victory of the heavenly over the earthly is an exercise in having your cake and eating it too: and we’re not talking about a single slice, but a sumptuous all-you-can-eat musical banquet of sinful tarts. Even those desserts glazed in Christian morality provide robust opportunities for Handel to feed the senses.
Il Trionfo is a piece about the delusions of youth, the ravages of time, and the arid visions of paradise offered by religion—the perfect vehicle for the brash young Saxon to beat the Italians at their own game by writing music of intense emotion and imagery, from rapture to renunciation.
A two-week run of the oratorio fully-staged as the clandestine opera it really was and is concluded this past weekend at the Schiller Theater in Berlin. Hosted by the city’s Staatsoper, the production brought to the German capital Marc Minkowski and the Musiciens du Louvre baroque orchestra he founded thirty years ago and moved from Paris to Grenoble in 1996.
More than just a baroque specialist, Minkowski has nonetheless made his name directing works of the Grand Siecle, as well as the operas of Handel, Gluck, and Mozart. The group he leads plays with a precision and elan worthy of the great bands of the 18th century. A big man, Minkowski commands his players with the minutely exacting signals of his baton, as well as with grander gestures that bring to life Handel’s swells and sweeps: the twenty-one-year-old Handel already outdid his older contemporaries with an ability to create unexpected melodic and harmonic turns while never forgetting about the larger dramatic contour of each aria. Handel applies specific signifiers of musical meaning drawn from the lexicon of 18th-century figures and flourishes with great creativity from the palette of his imagination: virtuosic brushstrokes astonish through their detail, but still more by the vast, vivid canvasses they create. Likewise Minkowski’s Musiciens play together with energy and accuracy, and when called upon the group’s members fill important and demanding individual dramatic roles, as in the solo oboe’s tortured chromaticism of “Io sperai,” which comes at the moment in the second act when Bellezza’s realizes that the pursuit of truth will mean a turn away from pleasure. Sylvia Schwartz sang this searing aria with beauty and bitterness. She was most at home in shadowy pathos and in the whispered ecstasy of the final self-denying “Tu del Ciel.” Her farewell to the joys of the world is guided heavenward by an ethereal obbligato violin part delivered with the most fragile delicacy by the ensemble’s concertmaster Thibault Noally. Il Trionfo ends with a fading-out, a relinquishing of the world that couldn’t be farther from the forceful choruses of Handel’s later oratorios.
The forces of moral good were represented with a perfectly judged mixture of cajoling, petulance, browbeating, and moralizing. Charles Workman’s Tempo flexed his powers of persuasion in brandishing time’s inexorable destruction in “Urne voi”—scaring the already wavering Bellezza into her path towards piety. Workman has a huge dynamic range capable of the bluff and insidious faces of Tempo’s character. The capable, if occasionally unfocused, Delphin Galou’s Disinganno insidiously casts pleasure as sin in the austere chromaticism of her opening aria “Fosco genio.”
But the evening belonged to Inga Kalna’s Piacere. Admittedly, she has the advantage playing the most modern and appealing character. Pleasure convinces more easily against the vacillations of Beauty, and the hectoring of Time and Truth. Equipped with a voice by turns warm and fiery, intimate and extrovert, Kalna revealed the power of poised, pared-down rhetoric in her final plea to win back Bellezza’s to the ranks of hedonism in “Lascia la spina”—music reused by Handel a few years later in his debut opera in London, Rinaldo, in one of his best known arias, “Lasica ch’io pianga.” But the diminutive Latvian soprano can crank up the heat, as she did when finally spurned by Bellezza; with Handelian confidence Kalna vanquished the coloratura of“Il bel pianto,” making her exit in a blaze of fury—literally, as she torched a well-dressed dummy before storming off stage.
Whereas Il Trionfo was probably performed in its original Roman version with scenic backdrops and other theatrical flourishes but without actions, Juergen Flimm’s Berlin staging places the battle for Bellezza’s soul in a 1930s bar. Its art deco fixtures and hipster patrons raised immediate questions as to why no similar locale was to be found nearby in which the whistle could be wetted in similar style.
Although the libretto calls for only four characters—generally pacing between their front-and-center table and the nearest mooring at the long granite jetty that was the bar, Flimm populated his party not only with the glamorous, but also with enigmatic visitors whose bearing on Pamphili’s text required considerable interpretive skill: a hobo sporting tatty angels wings; fedora-wearing Mafiosi blown inside by a rogue snow flurry; a postmodern fashion show with the models in increasingly provocative states of undress using the bar as their catwalk; a bald-headed psychiatric outpatient with dozens of acupuncture needles in his gleaming scalp; a man in leopard suit who collapsed and could not be revived by defibrillation.
Flimm’s theatrical vision turned around the incongruous equation of 19th-century Roman clerics feasting on suspect moral fare. As evening drew to a close, Bellezza cast off her strapless party dress to encase herself in a nun’s habit. She singing her last utterances in a state of abjection, face down on the stage—the swinger’s hot spot transformed into a cloister. The on-stage waiters and bartenders literally threw in their towels and marched out in disgust. One libertine Berliner in the audience even joined in their dismay at Bellezza’s conversion; he let rip a theatrical boo even as Handel’s transcendent music mingling salvation and bereavement wafted towards the Schiller lobby.
In spite of the perfection of Handel’s depiction of his four allegorical characters, one doubts the twenty-one-year-old star musician really believed the lofty message he was charged with setting. The proof for this comes in the first act sonata that precedes Piacere’s conjuring of the real world of endless pleasure that Bellezza can look forward to. Here Handel strides into the oratorio, like one of the beautiful people into Flimm’s bar, with a lengthy organ solo. It seems he alone can stop time—arrest the flow of the allegorical—to indulge in his own pleasure at music and seduce those who hear it.
Pamphili’s text leaves no doubt about the rapturous flight of this glorious Saxon bird. Transfixed, Bellezza finally intrudes to ask, “What sound is that?” Piacere then answers in her ensuing aria, still in dialogue with the organ, that the music it plays comes from “a fetching youth who awakens great pleasure with his seductive strains.” Paying full tribute to one of Handel’s greatest set pieces, Klimm had the Grenoble band’s young harpsichordist, Francesco Conti—a hotshot with a couple of excellent recordings to his name and international competition laurel wreaths on his mantelpiece –wheeled onto stage playing an 18th-century-style chamber organ and kitted out in full Handelian rig—big wig, frock coat, breeches and buckled shoes. Flimm seemed to want us to ask which venue was more suitable for hedonistic purposes and more fitting for Handel’s genius: a Roman Cardinal’s palazzo or a trendy Berlin bar.
Handel mined this, his first oratorio, for material throughout his career. He returned to Il Trionfo one last time in 1757 to piece together from pre-existent material his last work, The Triumph of Time and Truth. Blind and within two years of his death, Handel was himself a monument to the ravages of time. His public performances of organ concertos were an object of both veneration and pity from his devotees, remembering his past glories as he was guided to the instrument and oriented towards the keyboard, before he could muster some of the old magic. During the short run of the 1757 version of The Triumph of Time and Truth, one can imagine Handel listening to the oratorio in his darkness, his thoughts flying back to the timeless audacity of his youthful triumph in the Eternal City fifty years before, seeing and hearing his bravura ecstasy in the arms of the musical pleasure that still thrills us today.