A Triumph for Handel and Everybody Else

United StatesUnited States  Handel: Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno: Amanda Forsythe and Dominique Labelle (sopranos), Lawrence Zazzo (countertenor), Ross Hauck (tenor), Pacific MusicWorks Baroque Orchestra, Stephen Stubbs (conductor, harpsichord, and lute), Daniels Recital Hall, Seattle, 30.3.2012 (BJ)

This was quite possibly the greatest performance not just of a Handel masterpiece but of anything that I have heard since moving to the Seattle area more than six years ago. To anyone that heard Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine conducted by Stephen Stubbs in Seattle’s St James Cathedral in 2010, I might perhaps need to say no more in justification of that large statement than that this performance of Handel’s first oratorio was on the same superb level of inspiration and execution—and yet it should be added that the singing, this time around, was even more thrilling and accomplished.

Of the two sopranos, Amanda Forsythe, who sang the role of Bellezza, or Beauty, may be said to possess slightly the more sumptuous voice, and she used it with unfailing grace and imagination. Dominique Labelle, as Piacere (Pleasure), sang with what could be adjudged an even more consistently firm and shapely line—and I cannot recall ever hearing the Italian language so perfectly enunciated by a singer of either Italian or non-Italian stock: she projected every vowel and every consonant with pinpoint accuracy and clarity, tempting her colleague with insinuating charm. The aria “Lascia la spina” (which Handel set to a tune from his even earlier opera Almira, and was recycled even more seductively a few years later as “Lascia ch’io pianga” in Rinaldo) is transcendently beautiful in itself; and Ms. Labelle indeed sang it so transcendently beautifully that, whatever the moralistic priorities of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili’s libretto, one was almost forced to conclude that Beauty was a fool to turn Pleasure and cast her lot instead with Disinganno (Truth, or Sound Counsel) and Tempo (Time).

These two allegorical presences were sung respectively by countertenor Lawrence Zazzo and tenor Ross Hauck. When I read that no less expert a judge than René Jacobs had described Philadelphia native Zazzo as “maybe the best countertenor now on the stage,” my first thought was, “Wait a minute: how is that possible, in a Fach populated today by such luminaries as Andreas Scholl, Robin Blaze, Bejun Mehta, Daniel Taylor, and the less well-known but scarcely less talented Australian Graham Pushee?” Yet now, having heard Zazzo deploy his exceptionally rich tone, stunning technique, and wide range of expression in this performance, I have to conclude that he is, at the very least, right up there with the best of them. And for Seattle listeners it was a matter of satisfaction that the one local singer among the four soloists, Ross Hauck, who lives in nearby Issaquah, showed himself fully equal to his celebrated colleagues from out of town in every important artistic and technical regard: the voice rang out with near-heroic strength and beauty, and the dramatic emphasis was at once trenchant and, when appropriate, amusingly downright.

Under Stubbs’s direction, as judicious in choice of tempos as in balancing of textures, the 18-member orchestra supported the singers with brilliant panache, highlighted by some spectacular solo work from violinist Tekla Cunningham, oboists Kathryn Montoya and Owen Watkins, and organist Joseph Adam. But the last word about this unforgettable concert should rightly be dedicated to Handel and to a work that, composed at the age of 22, nevertheless fully deserves the name of masterpiece. It is rich in those qualities, both musical and human, that were to characterize Handel’s oeuvre for the next 50 years. Yet, at the same time, it seems to me to stand in a relation to his later music rather like that of Haydn’s middle-period symphonies, such as the “Farewell” and “Trauer” symphonies, to his fully mature “London” set. It would be wrong to suggest that the earlier works, with either man, were as polished and as consummate in style and expression as the final masterpieces—yet, again in both cases, the earlier manner encompasses a boldness and freshness of manner that comes later to be exchanged for the smoother perfection of maturity.

A striking example of this boldness in Il trionfo can be adduced in the quartet that closes the first of the work’s two parts: its dramatic intensity scarcely has its match in any ensemble to be found in Handel’s late works. As he grew older, and as his mastery became more assured, he turned increasingly to other methods and other modes of expression.

Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno began Handel’s career in oratorio with the same subject that would also end it, a full fifty years later, in the English-language version The Triumph of Time and Truth. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this early Italian setting is its ending. Throughout his career, Handel preserved the ability to craft conclusions that treat the most serious matters with the lightest of touch—think of the wonderfully unemphatic yet deeply moving ensemble that ends one of his greatest operas, Rodelinda. Even more remarkably, especially for the work of so young and relatively inexperienced a composer, Il trionfo ends with a hushed and deeply minor-ish aria. Despite the “triumph” it represents, there is a total and astonishing absence of facile triumphalism in the restraint, humility, and profound inwardness of Beauty’s concluding avowal of penitence. No wonder Beethoven was to say of Handel, “He is the master of us all: the greatest effects with the simplest means.”

Bernard Jacobson