Handel’s compositions from his time in Italy, between 1707 and 1710, sparkle with the vitality of a young genius thriving in new surroundings.
Ian Page and the Classical Opera Company chose this fruitful period as the theme for the latest of their residencies at Kings Place.
It’s a just a shame that an overall sense of theatricality was missing from an otherwise sound performance.
Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Enlightenment) was composed in 1707 under the strictures of the Papal ban on opera in Rome during Lent, its allegorical libretto relating how Bellezza (Beauty), who has sworn to devote herself eternally to Piacere (Pleasure), is eventually shown the foolishness of her choice by Time and Enlightenment.
Unfortunately, there was no detailed explanation in the programme of these abstract concepts, nor of the final moral of the story although surtitles were provided, these did little to inform, and led to misunderstanding laughter at some phrases clearly intended to be warnings about morality and mortality.
There was much to enjoy: Rebecca Bottone’s brilliant and coquettish soprano made an ideal Bellezza, even if she spent most of the time glued to her score. Bottone, like Caitlin Hulcup, singing Piacere, starred in the COC’s recent triumphant production of Arne’s Artaxerxes at Covent Garden, so perhaps one should not be too hard; however, Hulcup was much more familiar with her part and was delightfully seductive and beguiling.
Marie Elliott’s permanent dour expression fitted the pragmatic sternness of Disinganno to a tee, the lugubrious moralizing was impressively solemn in her rich lower register. Thomas Hobbs, as her moral sidekick Tempo, does not possess what might be considered a traditional Handelian tenor voice, yet his clarity of diction and beautiful legato made his the most pleasing performance still a student at the Royal Academy of Music, his star is clearly in the ascendant.
Pick of the orchestra were Matthew Truscott, the COC’s stalwart leader (his solo in the final aria was the highlight of the evening) and Steven Devine on keyboards Handel composed several organ obbligati for himself to play, and not a note was out of place under Devine’s nimble fingers.
However, for all the excellence of individual musicians, there was frustratingly little overall sense of the variety of colour, both tonal and timbral, in Handel’s score. Not that the music-making itself was below the COC’s customary excellent technical standards; rather, that the myriad images and metaphors in the libretto evoked only half-hearted responses. Beauty recoiling from the unstoppable approach of Time on menacing wings, graves flying open to show that all mortal life eventually decays, the tears of the dawn crystallizing into pearls inside a flower all these were passed by with minimal characterization, which meant that by the time the final chord ended, the audience had heard a succession of splendid arias expertly performed, but with little sense of the plot and even less understanding of how Time had triumphed.