Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment) was the first composition by the young Georg Friedrich Haendel (1685-1759) of such scope and magnificence that it must be considered one of his indispensable masterpieces. Written in Rome by the twenty-two year old Saxon, conducted in its premiere by Corelli, the work was never to be forgotten by its creator. Handel lengthened and modified portions of it in 1737 in London, under the title Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verita, and reworked it with an English libretto as the final effort of his life, with the title The Triumph of Truth and Beauty. If you happen to have other recordings of any of the three versions, you might as well give them to your local library; after you hear this performance by `Concerto Italiano', it's unlikely that you'll listen to any other ever again.
Like the brilliant smaller cantatas Handel composed in his Roman years (there are three recent recordings of such works by `La Risonanza', of surpassing beauty), Il Trionfo is 100% in the Italian manner, bursting with vocal exuberance and athleticism, utterly passionate, yet underneath the pyrotechnics one finds the profound structural mastery of counterpoint that the Saxon brought with him from Germany. Handel was, dare I say, the greatest Italian composer of the 18th Century. He was obviously also the greatest English composer of the 18th Century. Listening to his Italian triumphs, however, I find myself wishing he'd stayed in Rome and never removed his art to stuffy Calvinist England. Superb as his English music would be, there was something in the air in Italy that might have pushed him to even greater artistic accomplishments.
Despite its title, the real triumph of the oratorio belongs to Beauty, sung with enthralling loveliness by Deborah York, whose arias soar above even the pyrotechnics of Pleasure, Time, and Disillusionment. Beauty has the last word, by the way, the final aria, which has to be one of the most surprising conclusions of any oratorio ever written, both musically and textually. The other singers - soprano Gemma Bertagnoli, alto Sara Mingardo, and tenor Nicholas Sears - are all equally flawless in technique, and all possess naturally beautiful voices, the chief prerequisite for Italian vocal music then and now.
No one ever utilized oboes more effectively than Handel. In the orchestra upon which the singers are borne aloft in triumph, it's the oboes that most often take the melodic lead and that perform the most breathtaking obbligatos. Kudos need to be awarded to the organ also, which emerges as an obbligato instrument in several arias; it's almost certain that Handel himself played the organ in the Roman premiere. And let's not forget the bassoon, played here by Paola Frezzato. It's a classic bassoon romp; I wish I'd played it myself.
There was no chorus in the first, Roman, edition of this Il Trionfo, and thus none in this performance. The biggest changes Handel would make in London would be to add choruses. To my ears, that was an error of taste occasioned by audience expectations. The cascades of vocal virtuosity that dominate this triumph don't need the gravity of choruses. If some of the arias sound awfully familiar, by the way, it's because Handel incorporated many of them in later operas and oratorios.
Conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini has done everything right this time. It's startling to me, as a veteran of the Early Music revival, how suddenly and undeniably Italian singers and instrumentalists such as Alessandrini have emerged as the most artful and exciting performers of Baroque music, stealing the Gold from the Northerners.