Vancouver Early Music Festival gets a handle on young Handel's Il Trionfo del Tempo

With its staging of Il Trionfo del Tempo, the Vancouver Early Music Festival shows the composer at his most virtuosic and profound.
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George Frederick Handel is best known for the masterpieces he wrote in England, under the royal patronage of George I and his son George II. But Early Music Vancouver director Matthew White contends that the German-born composer’s early works, written before the move to London—such as the 1707 oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo, the centrepiece of this year’s EMV Festival—deserve equal recognition as pinnacles of Handel’s creativity and musicianship.

“After having spent the last 20 years performing and getting to know his entire oeuvre, I feel some of the early work is actually among the best,” says White, reached at his Vancouver office. “I wouldn’t even say there was necessarily a progression from that time, just a gradual simplification of some of the forms you see in early Handel works like Dixit Dominus and Agrippina. They have all the elements of the next 50 years of his life. But there’s also this interesting, thorny connection to the 17th century, where the melodies are slightly more complicated and the virtuosity more extreme, that was probably the result of his exposure to brilliantly virtuosic Italian musicians.”

When he wrote and produced Il Trionfo, his first oratorio, Handel was 22 years old and living in Rome. “He’d just come from Hamburg, where he was working in the opera as a composer, violinist, and harpsichordist, and he was invited by one of the Medici to Florence. An Italian sojourn was part of every serious musician’s education, and he was there to soak it all up. The tradition of northern musicians going south to learn from the Italians was over a century old at this point.”

EMV director Matthew White.

The librettist for Il Trionfo was cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, an important patron of the arts. According to White, the Italian text helps explain why the work is not more popular in the English-speaking world. “I would argue that it’s for the same reason Italian opera was less successful ultimately in England in the 18th century: it’s not in English, unlike the Messiah or Saul.”

But the main reason Il Trionfo is not heard more often, White argues, is paradoxically one of its key attractions: the high level of musicianship and virtuosity required to perform it. The original players—for whom the piece was written—included some of the greatest musicians of the baroque era. “It’s amazing all the musicians that Handel met in Italy,” says White. “People like [Arcangelo] Corelli, who was the first violinist in the orchestra when the piece was performed, and Alessandro Scarlatti the elder. There were many first-rate musicians to learn from.

“Apparently, Handel first wrote the overture in the French style, and Corelli said, ‘I don’t understand this style at all; write it for me in the Italian style.’ I’ve heard it a lot and it’s funny: I don’t think I’ve ever heard it come off without a hitch—because it’s hard. You’ve got two duelling violin parts which are just brutal, and they go right up to the highest notes in the register—all at breakneck speed. So it’s a real challenge.”

The theme of Il Trionfo del Tempo—transience, fading beauty, ephemerality—is a universal one, particularly resonant for a sophisticated Roman audience living amid the many ruins of antiquity’s greatest city.

White points to another Early Music Festival program this year, Les Voix Baroques’ Vanitas Vanitatum on Saturday (August 9) at the Roy Barnett Recital Hall, that complements Trionfo. “They’re performing pieces by Giacomo Carissimi, Marco Marazzoli, and Domenico Mazzocchi, all Roman works that Handel would have become familiar with in Italy and all on the same theme, basically, as Handel’s Il Trionfo,” he says. “I think he chose this subject because it was dear to many Roman composers’ hearts.”

One of the delights of Il Trionfo—which in EMV’s production features sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Krisztina Szabó, alto Reginald Mobley, and tenor Colin Balzer, as well as the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, all under the direction of Alexander Weimann—is at the very end of the piece.

“Many of the later oratorios conclude with a giant ‘Amen’ or ‘Alleluia’ or trumpet and kettledrums,” says White. “This ends on a much quieter note. It’s utterly sublime. I heard Amanda do it in Seattle a few years ago, and it was a profound moment. Something I like about this piece is that you’ve got this virtuosity, which almost seems vulgar, but it’s balanced by real substance. So there are moments of calm and simple beauty. It’s also always connected to the meaning of the text, which Handel does so brilliantly.”

White is excited that Il Trionfo is the first production by the festival to perform outside of town. “We’re rehearsing in Montreal, where about half the musicians live, and taking it to Ottawa, and then we’ll perform it again here,” White says. “It’s good news because it’s such a big piece, with lots of little corners and things for us to work out—over a bit of time.”

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