By George Frederick Handel. An Early Music Vancouver production as part of the Vancouver Early Music Festival. At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Thursday, August 7
Early Music Vancouver’s production of Il Trionfo del Tempo was indeed a triumph ruled by time—but not quite in the way that its composer, George Frederick Handel, intended.
The German composer’s first-ever oratorio, written at age 22, is moralistic to its core, preaching that pleasure and beauty are but hollow vanities next to the steadfast virtues of faith. Handel got it wrong, though: the pleasures and beauties of his 307-year-old score have so far been undimmed by time, whereas its morality now seems archaic. And if time triumphed in this particular production, that had more to do with conductor Alexander Weimann’s magical interpretation than Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili’s pompous libretto.
Cutting an elfin figure behind his chamber organ, Weimann bounced on his feet through much of what turned out to be a long night—which could have felt much longer were it not for his lively and varied direction. A more prosaic reading of Handel’s work would quickly have grown tedious; although Il Trionfo houses many brief bursts of melodic beauty, Pamphili’s dogma also necessitates an equal number of wordy soliloquies—and an excess of repetition in the arias, just to drive the prelate’s puritanical homilies home.
Frankly, I was rather dreading spending a hot summer evening in the company of such a bore, but Il Trionfo held my attention from start to finish. Part of that was due to strong performances from the entire cast, but it was Weimann’s wizardry that glued the star turns together. In Handel’s piece, time might rule pleasure, but Weimann ruled time, giving a subtle goose to sections that needed chivvying along and slowing things down to a languorous simmer when necessary. At points, the 21-piece Pacific Baroque Orchestra seemed nearly as flexible as a jazz band, especially whenever Matthew Jennejohn countered soprano Amanda Forsythe’s voice with his oboe obbligatos.
As Bellezza, or Beauty, Forsythe grew into her role. Early on, her voice seemed too small for the part, but within minutes she’d taken measure of the Chan and found a way to reach the rafters. Her final aria, “Tu del ciel”, was truly heavenly, and was accompanied by equally celestial violin from PBO concertmaster Chloe Meyers.
Mezzo Krisztina Szabó could have been more carnally convincing in the role of Piacere, or Pleasure, but perhaps this was the fault of the score: Handel presumably didn’t want to give his moral antagonist the loveliest tunes.
Tempo was played by Colin Balzer, who brought enough imperiousness to his Time that he only rarely descended into playing the scold. (This sounds like faint praise but, given what he had to work with, it’s not.) And in the smallest role, Reginald L. Mobley delivered greatness.
As written, Disinganno, or Disillusion, is merely Time’s henchman, but every time the burly countertenor opened his mouth to sing, he grabbed the spotlight. People talk about the fabric of the voice, and Mobley’s is pure silk, preternaturally warm and rich for one singing so far above the usual male range.
In the original production, by the way, Bellezza, Piacere, and Disinganno’s roles would have been sung by castrati, victims of a morally dubious procedure that no doubt had the full approval of librettist Pamphili. Which, I suppose, is one more reason to discount the Cardinal’s joyless screed while hailing the enduring beauties and, yes, pleasures of Handel’s score.