"Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno" is an early work of Handel, composed in 1707 and already displaying his very distinct style that is audible with his cantatas, some of which are written by the libretto and for the same Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili Le Cantate per il Cardinal Pamphili (Le cantate italiane di Handel, 1), just as this masterwork. The accompanied booklet of this recording mentions that this is the first work of Handel where he displayed significant borrowing from other composers, referring specifically to pieces from operas of Reinhard Keiser, Handel's musical director and teacher during his time in Hamburg.
But even without knowing of Keiser, what strikes a listener in the music of "Il Trionfo" is the unmistakable influence of a more popular Vivaldi; this is especially evident in certain places such as in Bellezza's aria "Un pensiero nemico di pace" (CD1, track 14). I am quite sure that if this aria was played to an unsuspecting audience, most would attribute it to the author of the ubiquitous "Quattro Stagione" - indeed his signature is as eminent there as in any of his 400+ operas (a record Handel did not beat). Another aria drawn from Vivaldi is "Piu non cura" - Disinganno sings this (CD2, track 10). But what differs Handel from Vivaldi is a greater range of genius or expression; the variety of moods, nuances and tempi is what makes Handel's music superior to Vivaldi's, although this variety can be attributed again to the extensive borrowing. Perhaps Vivaldi would have been as cherished as Handel in his time and as respected today if he had done some Handel-style re-use of other composers' ideas, but alas... obviously il Prete Rosso was not such a talented and sophisticated courtier as Il Caro Sassone.
Nevertheless, this oratorio shows various styles in composition; going back to Reinhard Keiser, I was surprised to learn from the booklet that such a quintessentially Handel's music as the Disinganno's aria "Crede l'uom ch'egli riposi" (CD 1, track 23) owes completely to Keiser's "Ruhig sein" from his opera "Octavia" (1705). I have heard this theme in many of his operas/oratorios, for example, in "Jerusalem, thou shalt no more" from Athalia (an oratorio written 30 years after Il Trionfo) and always admired Handel's genius for this elevating, shining music; yet it is Keiser's! I think he was able to get away with all this because Rome, where this work was composed, was too far from Hamburg at his time, although in Florence his "borrowing" was already well-known and much discussed in Ferdinando de Medici circles, which included composers Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Giacomo Antonio Perti, Giovanni Legrenzi, Benedetto Marcello and others.
All in all, Handel had perused material from seven (!!!) Keiser's operas in his triumphal Trionfo. We can only regret that not much Keiser's works are available today, while they probably deserve much attention since Handel found them so worthy.
Obviously the composer returned to Il Trionfo's score many times - his all-time hit "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Rinaldo is found here in Il Trionfo as Piacere's aria "Lascia la spina", and the final aria of Bellezza "Tu del Ciel ministro eletto" have transferred practically without any change to Angelica's aria "Ritornava al suo bel viso" from "Orlando". In the comments section of this review I provide a link to this splendid aria.
Finally, there is also the French style that is presented in pieces like Piacere's aria " Chiudi, chiudi I vaghi rai" (CD2, track 2) - it must be this distinct style that made Arcangelo Corelli, a virtuoso violinist playing Il Trionfo in concerts, refer to Il Trionfo's overture as written in the French style (Handel had rewritten the overture and we hear today the "Italian" style of it).
Another thing that distinguishes the work is the amazingly high quality of intelligence in the libretto. These are all good old friends the Arcadians who devoted their lives to enlightenment (coincidentally, Disinganno!) and refinement, they sought Bellezza and Piacere in discoursing sublime philosophical ideas on Aristotelean level, one could say, and they truly reveled in their exclusivity of thought.
A mere 100 years later sugary-soupy dramas of Rossini/Bellini/Donizetti would dominate the scene, but again the works of those composers were written to please the growing number of wealthy bourgeoisie, while Handel composed for the elite and already shrinking circle of the most refined aristocracy. We are fortunate to sample pieces from the Arcadians' feast, as truly this music is probably the pinnacle of its art, with the decline starting from Beethoven and even Mozart not far.
I love that this work, as many others that Handel wrote, is so removed from reality and talks about all things unmaterial and celestial; truly it is difficult not to envisage a Tiziano's picture "Profane and Celestial Love", which is in Villa Borghese; while Benedetto Pamphili lived not that far away in a much more opulent palace known today as Palazzo Doria-Pamphili, still privately owned (!!!) and housing incomparable works of art, like Caravaggio's "Caravaggio Flight to Egypt" or Velasquez "Portrait of Pope Innocent X", among other outstanding works by Brueghel, Durer, Guido Reni, Claude Lorrain, etc., not to mention the amazing galleries and the overall architecture...no wonder that he considered himself expert enough in beauty and pleasure to write about their dangerous effects on reason, a.k.a enlightenment, and was rich enough to employ composers who immortalized Pamphili's name through the beauty and pleasure of their works.
Musically, the rendition is superb. Natalie Dessay as Bellezza is marvelous, with her somewhat childish, chirping tone, suggesting utmost youth accompanied by joy and self-possessed pleasure, so marvelously sung by a lower tessitura of a mezzo Ann Hallenberg. On the second thought, a more clear and instrumental voice like Sandrine Piau could be more suited for the purity of Baroque style... The wise disillusioned Disinganno is superbly cast by an alto Sonia Prina, and Tempo by a thrilling voice of Pavol Breslik. I think these are some of the best voices available today to create a magnificent Il Trionfo that truly triumphs under the baton of Emmanuelle Haim. I was not much enamored by her for her work with Natalie Dessay on Cleopatra's album Handel : Cleopatra - Giulio Cesare Opera Arias, but here Mme. Haim created a true gem of Baroque music.
Once more I'd like to stress that the most effect is achieved when the text is read or understood, because although so very serious, it is also secretly mischievous, and some images it creates for the great effect, like "the funeral urns full of many beauty's skeletons", are quite funny, reminding of a once fashionable British funeral humor. I can imagine the Arcadians, leisuring out in the most glorious garden of the Queen Christina's splendid residence Palazzo Corsini, in the most magnificent city of all, under the balmy Roman sun, basking in indescribable luxury, pleasantly discussing grave subjects as cold bones devoured by Time, brevity of life and imminent departure from its pleasures that fatum so generously poured on them, chosen lucky ones. Well, we can take pleasure in some of the beauty they have left to us till today, as this music.