Opera Theatre Company and Irish Baroque Orchestra at Christ Church Cathedral, 10 April 2015

Handel’s first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno [‘the triumph of time and enlightenment’ (or disillusion, take your pick)] gets a rare performance – possibly its Irish premiere – in tonight’s concert. Initiated by soloist Sharon Carty, and presented by Opera Theatre Company (with the Irish Baroque Orchestra) as part of the OTC OPERA HUB programme, this is an ambitious project, and attracts a large audience.

Composed for a private performance in 1707, when the bright 22-year-old Handel was in Rome, the work is unusual even by the standard of contemporary Italian oratorios. There’s no chorus (keeping the soloists busy throughout), while the ‘story’ is a symbolic allegory rather than a dramatic narrative. Long neglected, the slow-burning beauty of Il Trionfo is gradually gaining popularity. It’s a reflective work that, apart from anything else, gives audiences a rare insight into Handel’s development as a composer, and we hear ideas and first drafts of pieces that in later years he would rework again for the public stage. The story, by Handel’s patron, Cardinal Pamphili, centres on the figure of Beauty and the competition for her soul that arises between the joys of Pleasure and the sustaining moral counsel of Time and Enlightenment.

Directed from the harpsichord by Baroque specialist John Butt and ably led by violinist Claire Duff, the IBO plays superbly from the start. The evening brings some excellent solo playing from Duff, as well as cellist Gavin Kibble, oboist Gail Hennessy and organist Malcolm Proud. Carty sings the role of Piacere (Pleasure) and she is joined by fellow OTC artist Kim Sheehan as Belezza (Beauty), along with Alison Browner as Disinganno (Enlightenment) and Simon Bode as Tempo (Time). Beauty’s progress from self-admiration to gleaming penitence is reflected in Handel’s music with a wide range of musical styles. The sheer volume of material (more than some opera roles) seems especially taxing on Sheehan, who at times sounds a bit out of her depth. As the evening progresses, however, her confidence and tone both improve with some lovely moments in the second half, especially in the blissful closing aria ‘Tu del Ciel’.

Browner, the most experienced singer, brings great depth and style to her role, though frustratingly there are momentary slips of intonation and focus. Up-and-coming tenor Simon Bode is clearly here to impress, and does so with excellent tone, presence and clarity. Vocally, however, the evening belongs to mezzo Sharon Carty, who sings with assurance and authority, nowhere less so than in the plangent aria ‘Lascia la spina’ (the music of which Handel re-used in his opera Rinaldo for the lament ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’), which is easily one of the evening’s highlights. Her sparkling agility also comes to the fore in faster movements. Succeeding as both artist and (in this case) impresaria, she is clearly a talent to watch. The work ends simply and without fanfare, but the silence is soon broken by rapturous applause, bringing to a close a very special evening.

Programme:

Handel: Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, HWV 46a

Soloists:

Kim Sheehan (soprano – Belezza)

Sharon Carty (mezzo soprano – Piacere)

Alison Browner (alto – Disinganno)

Simon Bode (tenor – Tempo)

Irish Baroque Orchestra, directed by John Butt

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