Triumph of Handel, Christie, Juilliard415 and Soloists

United StatesUnited States Handel, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno: Raquel Gonzáles (soprano), Ying Fang (soprano), Rachel Wilson (mezzo-soprano), Spencer Lang (tenor), Juilliard415, William Christie (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 27.10.2012 (SSM)

The first decade of the eighteenth-century was one of the most unusual and prolific periods in the history of vocal music. Opera had been banned by Pope Innocent XII, and that policy continued until the death of his successor, Pope Clement XI, in 1710. But similar to American Prohibition when alcoholic beverages were often produced with the tacit approval of the very people who established the ban, vocal music was commissioned by men close to the Pope. Two cardinals (Ottoboni and Pamphili) and one Marchese (Ruspoli) sponsored soirees where composers like Handel and Alessandro Scarlatti presented cantatas and oratorios.

These works were basically operas without staging, traditionally in two sections and modeled after medieval morality plays. The libretti consisted of debates among personified Platonic ideals as to who was smarter, more powerful or more beautiful. Some were based on mythological stories so as to avoid any association with the sacred, but Handel in his many interpolations of old arias into new works made little distinction between the sacred and the profane. Often the text was meant to be edifying and frequently, as in the case of Trionfo, it was just plain dull. The big exception to the rule was Handel’s brilliant L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. That libretto works better than most because it is based on a poem by John Milton.

It was under this Papal ban that Handel wrote his first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno,at the age of twenty-two. Based on a libretto by Cardinal Pamphili, the oratorio must have pleased Handel: he revised it in 1737 and again in 1757, and borrowed many arias from it for use in later productions, the most famous transformation being that of Piacere’s “Lascia la spina” into Almirena’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” in Rinaldo.

The oratorio’s opening is not the French-style overture favored by Handel (a slow, stately, heavily dotted entrance, followed by a short-themed fugue and ending with a repetition of the opening), but rather a classic fast-slow-fast Italian sonata. The story goes that Handel had written his usual French overture for this work, but Corelli, who was a member of the orchestra, stated that he did not understand the French form. Handel, out of deference to the great violinist/composer, wrote a new Italian-style sonata to replace it.

Not that this new opening was any simpler for the orchestra to play. The violins and the oboes have much to do and there was some struggling from both instruments in the performance here. William Christie held nothing back, and as the work progressed both groups settled into a more comfortable playing of Handel’s demanding score.

Ying Fang and Rachel Wilson, who both appeared earlier this year as soloists in a cantata by Handel, have improved considerably. There were moments when Ms. Fang’s vocal coloring reminded me of a young Magdalena Kožená. Ms. Wilson sang a heart-rending “Lascia la spina,” softening her vocal coloring to a hue closer to Baroque vocal style. The same could be said of Raquel González, whose voice also seems to have lightened since her appearance with Christie during his previous visit to Juilliard. Tenor Spencer Lang excelled in every aria, intensely involved with the text and expressing emotion with every word.

Highlights of the performance included Ms. Gonzalez’s rendering of “Fosco genio,” with its odd jumping chromaticisms and strange, tricky cadences; Ms. Fang’s vocal gymnastics in “Una schiera di piaceri”; and the duet by Fang and González, “Il voler nel fior degl’anni,” with its virtuosic oboes and recorders. Perhaps the most exceptional piece in the oratorio is the quartet “Voglio tempo per risolvere” with its complicated vocal combinations revealing a level of artistic maturity not seen in Handel’s other early arias. The aria “Tu del Ciel,” sung tenderly here by Ms. Fang, ends the work on a quiet, peaceful note rather than with the usual upbeat finale.

Stan Metzger