Twentysomething Handel Sparkles In ‘Triumph Of Time’

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Beauty (Amanda Forsythe, right) disquieted by Time (Colin Balzer) in Early Music Vancouver's performance of Handel's first oratorio.  (Performance photos by Jan Gates)
Beauty (Amanda Forsythe, right) with Time (Colin Balzer) in Early Music Vancouver’s account of Handel’s first oratorio.
(Performance photos by Jan Gates)
By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER – The music of Handel has occupied a key place in the summer offerings of Early Music Vancouver for a number of seasons: Highlights included last year’s production of Israel in Egypt, and before that an airing of Orlando, fortuitously recorded by ATMA Classique. This year, the festival keystone was Handel’s first oratorio, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (“The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment”), written and performed in 1707 while the twentysomething composer was in Rome.

Handel returned frequently to the composition, quarrying it for ideas and re-jigging it on several subsequent occasions, yet contemporary productions are relatively rare, due in part to its subject and the format of its libretto. A lengthy dialogue between the allegorical characters of Beauty, Pleasure, Time, and Disillusionment doesn’t exactly suggest a box-office blockbuster, especially given the obligatory theologically “happy ending” of Beauty renouncing pleasure for a life of the spirit.

Alexander Weimann conducted and played an extended organ solo.
Alexander Weimann conducted and played a short organ concerto.

But talent will win out even over such seemingly intractable materials. Both in Ottawa (where the work was performed under the aegis of the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival) and at Vancouver’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, substantial audiences discovered a brilliant demonstration of absolute genius – a work filled with charm, psychological drama, and memorable music.

The core of the West Coast production was a cadre of period-instrument players from Vancouver, Montreal, and elsewhere, doing business under the banner of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, and led from the organ with spectacular verve by Alexander Weimann. A team of four vocal soloists made up the cast: tenor Colin Balzer as Time, alto Reginald L. Mobley as Disillusionment, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó as Pleasure, and soprano Amanda Forsythe as Beauty.

The vocal forces divided neatly along lines of focus and specialization. Canadian singers Balzer and Szabó are known for singing repertoire from a number of eras. Szabó is a regular with Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company; Balzer often appears in Early Music Vancouver projects. Both delivered strong performances.

Mobley very nearly stole the show with his Early Music Vancouver debut last summer in Israel in Egypt. His remarkable voice borders on the indescribable: darker at the bottom and richer than that of a conventional countertenor (if there is such a thing), with mid- and top-range agility and a delicious way with ornamentation plus the genuine expressiveness that marks a great Baroque-era vocal specialist. Handel gave the alto a number of star turns, none more affecting than the exquisite “Crede l”uom ch’egli riposi” (“Mankind thinks Time is sleeping”).

Soprano Forsythe, right, with colleagues during bows in Vancouver.
Soprano Amanda Forsythe, holding yellow flowers, shone in Handel’s first oratorio.

But really this was soprano Forsythe’s show. Her voice was clear, nimble, and expressive; she seemed to take risks with complete sang-froid, and to be incapable of any gesture, inflection, or ornament that is stale or lacking in taste. Her part was massive, including a grand final sequence of arias and recitatives that gave her moral revelation astonishing impact.

Not everything in the orchestral forces was unblemished – in particular, some questionable licks from the oboes – but the overall progression was taut. Handel structured the work with the practiced assurance of an old pro, not a newbie, in what in other circumstances might have been considered an apprentice piece.

Almost the entire first part of the work is exhilarating fun, with a spectacular example of vocal fireworks for Forsythe in “Un pensiero nemico di pace” (“A thought hostile to peace”), and even a brief organ concerto – played by Weimann – thrown in for extra measure. In Part Two comes the message: Time will triumph and the luster of all earthly things will fade. Quiet and contemplation give way to a short dramatic quartet, then Beauty’s extended revelation about the transient nature of life, although Pleasure is allowed the work’s single greatest hit, “Lascia la spina” (“Leave the thorn”), so much better known as “Lascia ch’io piango,” as it became just a few years later in Rinaldo.

Vancouver listeners might think that, where Handel is concerned, there can be a bit too much of a good thing. Not in this instance. Il trionfo is no rehearsal for future successes, but a demonstration of youthful assurance, second only in achievement to the early works of a Mendelssohn, a Mozart, or a Britten: a triumph in its own right.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and also teaches at the University of British Columbia.