Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno is a landmark in baroque music. It is Handel’s first oratorio, product of his astonishing flowering in Italy in his early twenties, suffused with the youthful vigour and virtuosity of his early works. The libretto, by the well-connected Benedetto Pamphili, is a highly crafted composition drawing on a rich mix of artistic forebears. It is both moral-religious allegory dramatized in music, and a pattern book of human psychology. This is the second disc for Hyperion from Academia Montis Regalis, who drew great acclaim for their recording of Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista.
Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno is a landmark in baroque music. It is Handel’s first oratorio, a product of his astonishing flowering in Italy in his early twenties. Already recognized as a brilliant performer and composer, Handel arrived in Rome from Florence in late 1706, and immediately attracted the patronage of the wealthy and influential Marquis Ruspoli, to whose household he became attached. He also attracted the ardent interest of Benedetto Pamphili (1653–1730), librettist of Il trionfo.
Pamphili was the best-connected librettist Handel ever had. Fifty-four at the time of their collaboration, he was himself a Cardinal, his father was a former Cardinal, and his parents were respectively nephew and sister-in-law of a Pope (Innocent X). He was highly experienced in the creation of words-and-music, being the librettist of fourteen other oratorios and over eighty pastoral and moral cantatas. A patron of religious fraternities performing the former and a member of the Arcadian Academy of aristocratic poets and outstanding musicians manufacturing the latter, he employed a band of virtuoso instrumentalists which included Corelli, leader of the first performance of Il trionfo. He was also an art collector, adding to the magnificent family collection (which can be visited today in the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili). The family had recently sponsored the internal reconstruction of St John Lateran by the master of avant-garde baroque architecture, Borromini. Pamphili was familiar with the highest expression of complex, sophisticated, tastefully dramatic baroque gesture.
As one might expect from such a cultivated connoisseur, the libretto of Il trionfo is a highly crafted composition drawing on a rich mix of artistic forebears. As moral-religious allegory dramatized in music, it belongs to a genre familiar in Rome from the time of Cavalieri’s oratorio Il rappresentatione di anima et di corpo of 1600, whose characters include Time, Body, Soul, Counsel, Intellect, Guardian Angel, World and Worldly Life, and Pleasure. Scholars have traced in Il trionfo the influence of Petrarch’s Trionfi, of the cult of the repentant Mary Magdalene, and of the popularity of emblem books.
About 3000 emblem books by over 700 authors were produced throughout Europe from the mid-sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. They were a combination of cartoon, quiz, poetry and map of the moral maze. Each page provided a simple but symbolic picture, a cryptic motto or proverb which it illustrated, and a poem explaining it. Among other uses, emblem books were intended for writers and speakers as a source of pregnant images. In Il trionfo the images—often cryptic or punning, just as in emblem books—and the way they are used by Pamphili and Handel—often ambiguously and challengingly—would have been familiar and delightful to the first audience. The naked simplicity of revealed Truth was a regular subject of emblem books, and the central event of Il trionfo, Time unveiling Truth, had been famously embodied in Rome in Bernini’s statue of Truth, naked and glorious, illuminated by the sun, as in Il trionfo. (Housed in the Galleria Borghese, this statue was originally designed as a group including Time.)
Alongside all its richness of meaning and reference, Il trionfo is also a pattern book of human psychology. Trained by Jesuits, Pamphili was an experienced confessor, and had himself undertaken a reformation of his life. A fisher for human souls with a wealth of manuals to hand on how to deal with the recalcitrant convert or sinner, he gave Handel—who was himself embarking on the penetration of the human psyche in his cantatas—a Bildungsroman, a story of a young person’s development.
There are four characters: Bellezza, Beauty, a young woman; Piacere, Pleasure, a young man (described in the emblem books as a charming youth of sixteen, and hence a soprano role); Disinganno, enlightened non-deceit (who is also referred to at one point as Counsel, meaning Good Counsel, good advice, and is perhaps best translated as Insight, rather than the usual Enlightenment, which has complicating period associations), a rather older man, an alto; and Tempo, Father Time, a tenor. The action comprises the three male characters trying to influence Bellezza to follow their persuasions, Tempo and Disinganno acting together against Piacere. In a nutshell, the story is the conversion of Beauty from a yearning for worldly enjoyment to an aspiration to more secure rewards. And by implication everyone should participate in such an aspiration: Beauty is the everyman character, is us, in this morality play.
Myth and allegory work best when we can recognize in them the real dilemmas and emotions of human beings. Il trionfo is a masterpiece of humane insight, and can be appreciated without recourse to any extraneous material, because it is true to life. While it is founded in religious doctrine, it works as a psychological study. The theme, put psychologically, is that to be able to live with oneself in the long term, one has to go below surface appearances, face the truth about oneself, and achieve balanced self-perception. Il trionfo could have a place in a psychotherapist’s textbook. The ‘personifications’ are variously parent, adult, and child figures. Tempo and Disinganno are exemplary parents: consistent, caring, instructive and imaginative in their efforts to engage Bellezza’s attention. Against their consistency we see Piacere and Bellezza moving from one state to another.
At the start, Piacere masquerades as adult to Bellezza’s presumed adult, while really Piacere is trying to be the controlling parent to Bellezza’s assumed child persona. She takes his instruction; he abets her wishful thinking and tries to prevent her really thinking for herself; and as it turns out, he is not only possessive and controlling, he is insecure himself, and deceitful as well.
During the course of the work Bellezza begins to listen to Tempo and Disinganno and to move away from Piacere’s influence. When Piacere fails to have what he wants, he lapses into the condition of an uncontrolled angry child; while in generously offering him the mirror of truth to share with her, Bellezza rises finally from child to adult.
In the difficult course of detaching herself from Piacere, Bellezza goes through anxiety, denial, fear, loss and grief. In Part 2, every one of her utterances is a psychological move forward. We live through the pain of growth with her. Once she accepts responsibility for her own actions and her future, she enters a state akin to depression: she is convinced that she now sees the truth, and it is bleak. Her self-esteem lost in a pernicious relationship, she feels worthless and alone.
The religious lesson is: accept God into your life sooner rather than later. The psychological lesson is: if you are self-deceiving, refuse to accept the truth, and behave thoughtlessly, the unavoidable pay-back will be desolation, loss, regret, remorse, self-hatred. But by the end Bellezza has a calmer perspective, and is moving on from self-reproach towards secure self-esteem.
In a later version of the libretto (1725) Pamphili called this work Il trionfo del Tempo nella Bellezza Ravveduta, ‘Beauty reformed’, which gives the whole story away immediately. He also smoothed away some of the ambiguities of the text. But in 1707 the text is complex, challenging the listener as well as the protagonist. Other Italian allegorical cantatas of the time have characters called ‘earthly Beauty’ and ‘spiritual Beauty’, ‘worldly Pleasure’ and ‘heavenly Pleasure’, but Pamphili engages us by not identifying the essential nature of Beauty and Pleasure in their names: part of the drama is that they gradually take shape before us.
The assertions that the characters make invite us to question them. The aphoristic texts of many of the recitatives demand reflection. For instance at one point Pamphili comes near to saying, in anticipation of Keats, that Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, causing us to wonder (by now attuned to moral possibilities), but what kind of beauty, platonic and ideal, or physical and transient? Many of the images, for instance the two mirrors, are clearly loaded, and are suggestively realized in the music, but are not fully explained. Che pensi?—What do you think?—Tempo asks Bellezza, and we are constantly being asked that too.
Exactly when and where in Rome Il trionfo had its first and probably only performance in Handel’s lifetime is unknown; it was possibly in Ruspoli’s Palazzo Bonelli. The autograph score is lost, and modern editions use the score made for the first performance, now in the Episcopal Seminary Library, Münster. The copyist was Antonio Giuseppe Angelini, and his invoice for the work is dated 14 May 1707.
Handel’s first biographer, Mainwaring, recounts that Handel’s overtures, with first movements in the French style, baffled the Italian-trained Corelli, so Handel rewrote the first movement of Trionfo’s overture in its present brilliant and demanding form. He acknowledged Corelli in the final number too: with punning aptness Bellezza’s concluding aria, a prayer to her guardian angel, has a glorious violin obbligato, which Arcangelo Corelli would have played.
Il trionfo is the first major work by Handel known to contain significant borrowing from another composer. As John Roberts pointed out, Handel uses motifs from seven operas written by Reinhard Keiser between 1697 and 1703 for the Hamburg opera house, where Handel was working before he left Germany for Italy. Mostly (and characteristically) they are thoroughly reworked. The most recognizable aria in the whole oratorio is a self-borrowing: ‘Lascia la spina’, which became an enduring favourite as ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo (1711), was originally a dance in Handel’s first opera for Hamburg, Almira. Il trionfo paid back in kind, providing Handel with material for La resurrezione (1708), Agrippina (1709), Deborah (1733) and Parnasso in festa (1734).
Il trionfo holds a special place in Handel’s output not only as his first oratorio but as a work which he recycled more substantially than any of his other compositions. In 1737, still in Italian, it was Il trionfo del Tempo e della Verità, and in 1757 it became the English Triumph of Time and Truth (recorded on Hyperion CDD22050). As he made the two revised versions for his English public he smoothed out the very features that modern performances and audiences have taken to their hearts: startling, even mannerist, harmonic and rhythmic dramatic gestures which bring the allegory to life and show the future master of opera, and of opera of the mind—oratorio—fully armed.
The opening shows Bellezza looking into her mirror: Fido specchio. Handel’s music gives us a lively young woman. She is clearly not the Platonic ideal of beauty, for she locates her identity and her self-esteem in her looks, though she knows she is bound to lose them. She takes surface appearance to be the whole truth, saying to her mirror ‘I am as I see myself in you’. Anxious about her future, she readily commits her entire happiness to a man who tells her he can preserve her appearance, and without cosmetic surgery. She swears a lovers’ pact of fidelity to Piacere: they get engaged. In fact it is clear from Bellezza’s later words, ‘Piacere, you who once lived with me’, that they move in together.
Piacere’s nature is also evident to the listener, if not to Bellezza. His final utterance will reveal that he is composed of deceit, and his first makes him sound like a trickster. Even before he utters, the ugly angularity of the ritornello to his first aria, Fosco genio, shows us that when he says that the mind is its own place—just as Satan does in Paradise Lost—he is offering no firm foundation.
The initial utterance of the other two characters, Disinganno and Tempo, is a joint recitative (Ed io), indicating the unity of their thinking, and presaging their combined ‘education’ of Bellezza.
We are bound to notice the contrast provided to Piacere’s angular melody and edgy harmony by the limpid directness of melody and harmony of Disinganno’s first aria. Se la bellezza is a continuo aria whose entire first strophe is initially heard completely unaccompanied. This is the music of unadorned truth, which is what Disinganno will show to Bellezza when she is ready for it. But Una schiera shows Bellezza cheerfully following Piacere’s instruction to use mental control: she is going to divide her forces, putting a cohort of her pleasures on guard over her thoughts. That is, she is not going to let herself actually think.
Tempo’s response is to try to frighten Bellezza out of her senses and into her intellect, by making her accept that no beauty lasts for ever and she will die. Treating her like the child that she still is spiritually and emotionally, he does not tell her facts, he shows them, displaying skeletal dust in a macabre scene that anticipates Romantic gothic horror (Urne voi). Bellezza’s insecurity, her anxiety about the future, about the unknown—something common to us all—is repeatedly the door by which all three advisers try to reach her.
All three having made their appeal, Bellezza chooses to stay with Piacere. In the headlong, carefree runs of their duet Il voler they are in perfect harmony. Their conclusion is that to spend time worrying is vanità, is futile, which is an inversion of true wisdom, and a failure on Bellezza’s part to recognize her own vanità, vanity, in gazing into a mirror (a characteristic Pamphili pun). Piacere’s argument is always the same: there will be plenty of time to change one’s life before it ends, seriousnesss can be left till one’s old. Disinganno warns them: no one can know when the end will come. Bellezza can only respond by proposing to deny the very existence of time, but her aria actually shows her in frantic flight from his ‘devouring’ scythe (Un pensiero nemico di pace—a fine instance of the psychological sense of the da capo aria, where the original idea cannot be shaken off and returns to haunt the singer).
In Folle, tu nieghi’l tempo Disinganno now also works on Bellezza’s anxiety, explaining to her what Tempo had made only terrifying. Disinganno tries to bring death, and hence, the idea of eternity home to Bellezza with reference to her own family entombed. The result is Bellezza’s first progress. In Con ingegnosa she has arrived at recognizing that neglect of time is self-deceit and ‘enjoyment’ is only possible when one is self-deceivingly neglectful of time. So she now has the beginning of a true appreciation of the power of time (she has yet to appreciate that time is not all-powerful), but she does not yet understand enjoyment, because she still conceives of it only as worldly delight.
With Tempo and Disinganno gaining on her in their joint exposition of time’s inevitable march (Nasce l’uomo), Piacere plays his trump card and leads Bellezza to his palace of delights, which is filled with artful and rather sinister versions of himself, and where the crowning sensory pleasure is hearing un leggiadro giovinetto, a charming youth—who would have been Handel himself—play a dazzling organ sonata. The result is that, because Handel’s music seems to make time stand still, Bellezza concludes that time is powerless (Venga il Tempo). This is a true-to-life instance of the reality of human progress: two steps forward and one step back. The charms of Pleasure’s palace have made Bellezza forget what she had just learnt about time. Disinganno tries to remind her, in the beautiful Crede l’uom, with the relentless tread of time in the accompaniment and the expanding spread of time’s wings in the vocal line—and a sharper warning in the middle section.
Despite all the powerful attractions of his palace, Piacere has not secured Bellezza. She is still anxious, and with ‘Piacere, io non t’intendo’ she now locates him as a source of her anxiety and confusion, which is new. She also says that Tempo and Disinganno are unavoidably her companions, which is also new, and leaves herself open to learning about the mirror of Truth.
Tempo thereupon explains his real nature to her: he is not omnipotent, and she can after all avoid his claws, by aspiring to heaven. Quanto chiude la terra is the first direct mention of religious faith, and Folle reinforces the contrast of heavenly security and earthly vulnerability. With La reggia del Piacer vedesti Disinganno and Tempo make her an outright invitation to ‘genuine pleasure’ in ‘the palace where truth resides’ (as opposed to Pleasure’s palace). In the quartet-style exchange that follows, Bellezza, while still hoping for a pain-free existence, is attracted to the idea of ‘true pleasure’. She accepts that it may lie somewhere as yet unknown to her. Piacere seizes on her uncertainty, warning her against uncharted terrain. With ‘Io preparo presenti contenti’ (in the Quartet) he traduces Tempo’s and Disinganno’s offering as an illusion invented to foster heroism (here Il trionfo anticipates Handel’s much later oratorio about choosing how to live, The Choice of Hercules). Piacere is playing on Bellezza’s lack of courage and fear of the unknown to instil low self-esteem in her. His implication is: you are no hero, you cannot reach this level.
In Part 2 Time unveils Truth, who is eternally beautiful. It is an adroit way to attract Bellezza to Truth to tell her that it is not only bella but sempre bella—exactly what she said in her first aria that she wanted for herself. Piacere’s response, in Chiudi, is to try to prevent Bellezza from seeing Truth, to remain in denial, telling her to ‘close your eyes’—like children who block something out by shutting their eyes to it. But at the same time Piacere is threatening, warning Bellezza that if she listens to Disinganno and Tempo she will lose her pleasure for ever.
But this time, for the first time, Bellezza does not obey him; instead she responds to Time’s reproof of her refusal of ‘the eternal lights’ and his encouragement to pursue ‘hope and deeds’. She faces Truth, for the first time. And immediately, in Io sperai, she is plunged into grief. Realizing that Truth will not offer the kind of pleasure that she wanted, and now surrendering her illusion that the kind of pleasure that she wanted can exist indefinitely, she is doubly lost: Piacere causes her distress, and Truth, as yet, is no comfort. This is the awful moment of realizing that what one thought was the love of one’s life is all wrong, but feeling that there is no replacement of that support in sight; of acknowledging that the affair has to end but feeling that to surrender the love is to face bleakness, loneliness and isolation. Bellezza now needs to be assured there is life after this desolation; she has no sense of it yet. Handel makes us hear that her life has no basis now, with unsupported or barely supported oboe and voice in the outer sections of Io sperai and solitary chromatic wandering by the voice in the middle section.
Piacere recognizes that this is a turning point. In the savage contours of Tu giurasti, no longer blandishing, we hear the brutal bitterness of the weak lover threatened with rejection: spiteful, menacing and, in the lurching modulations of the central section, tending to lose control.
But once more Bellezza does not respond to him. Tempo demands a decision, but in Io vorrei she is still torn: she wants to reform but she wants pleasure. She is at an impasse because she has not yet realized that more than one kind of pleasure is possible. Hence the interjection by Disinganno at the end of the first section: ‘which pleasure?’. That moves her on: in the central section she says that she wants to be clear that what she thought was her happiness was a mistake. Without the relationship that affirmed her identity, she has lost her bearings, she is confused, and Handel makes her still terribly sad: tears drip down in the bass.
Tempo and (especially) Disinganno are now crediting Bellezza with having increasing adulthood. They do not tell her what to think but ask her what she thinks (‘Che pensi … a qual piacere?’); and she enters into discussion with Disinganno about her state of mind. When she confesses that real fear (not just anxiety) is making her close her eyes to the truth, Disinganno, in Più non cura, shows her the region which she can inhabit if she can let go of her misguided relationship: not trapped in the dark valley but in the clear air and wide views of the mountain tops, to which Handel adds a promise of security with pastoral drone and recorders. Tempo encourages her that ‘the haven is near’ and provides an image of a ship in trouble—which Handel makes positively tempest-tossed—to warn her of the alternative.
This leads Bellezza to another key moment of progression: Dicesti il vero, ‘You have spoken the truth, and belatedly I understand’. But she is still in ‘anguish’ and ‘grief’. She has achieved full rational acceptance, but she still has a long way to go to reach emotional equilibrium. She is on the right path, but clear-sightedness is so painful that she flinches from it: ‘voglio e non voglio’ (‘I want and yet do not want’).
Bellezza’s opening line to the second (this time fully concerted) quartet, Voglio Tempo, is a pun: she is saying both ‘I don’t want to have to decide yet’ and ‘I want Time to decide for me’, that is, I don’t want to have to decide for myself at all. Emotional confusion has sent her back into her child mode. Handel supplies a musical pun too: on the word ‘Tempo’ Bellezza tries to hold time still but is defeated by the relentless striding bass. In the middle section Piacere tells her that (as he and Bellezza said in their duet in Part 1) there will be plenty of time for a change of heart. But this is a weak persuasion in the context of eternity which Bellezza now assents to, and shows Piacere beginning to be left behind, himself stuck in the mindset he wants to wish on her, not having realized that she is moving on.
Discussing the fetid garden of Piacere’s palace (Presso la reggia), Bellezza really engages with Disinganno. Now it is not Tempo and Disinganno asking leading questions of her, she is volunteering apt questions herself: a sign of growing psychological strength. Piacere needs to exert himself to get her back, and so, with no recitative, he launches musically the most seductive number of the whole work, Lascia la spina. Unlike Piacere’s other persuasions this one is apparently simple, apparently transparent, with (maybe) real feeling on Piacere’s part: regret at the fragility of worldly enjoyment. But again Bellezza ignores Piacere and, having withstood even this appeal, she asks ‘cortese’ Disinganno to show her the mirror of Truth. Significantly it is her initiative, not his. So compelling is Truth now for her, that as soon as she holds its mirror, and even before she looks into it, it precipitates the major turning point: her closure of the affair. She says goodbye to Piacere.
Yet in Bellezza’s following aria, Voglio cangiar desio, the flow of the melody is repeatedly interrupted by a jagged Presto rush of semiquavers, ending Adagio. Does this figure represent Piacere trying to grab Bellezza, making what he realizes is a last-chance attempt to snatch her from Disinganno? Or does it represent Bellezza flinching from the brink of almost going back to Piacere after all?—for she is as yet only saying that she wants to change, not that she will change. Either way, this semiquaver interruption suggests (very truly) that a determination to change can be undermined, for it does not of itself annul the power of the old attraction. Nevertheless, decisive and dramatic action follows: at Or che tiene, Bellezza hurls away her deceitful mirror and breaks it, even though Piacere tries to stop her, prevented by Disinganno (whose condemnatory Chi già fu can apply equally to the false mirror and the deceitful Piacere).
But then Bellezza looks in the mirror of Truth—and sees herself as ugly (Ma che veggio). Her plunge into self-disgust is psychologically acute. Recognition of her own responsibility for her own past, coupled with loss of the dearest part of life, leads to a crash in self-esteem. Her language becomes loaded with metaphors of self-harm. She resolves ‘this day [to] see the end of my delusions’. The shame that accompanies realization of folly makes her exaggerate her culpability and the punishment due to it. She not only divests herself of all the trappings of beauty (in Ricco pino, adopting Tempo’s image of her as a vessel looking for its harbour). In Si, bella Penitenza, she asks for a hair shirt, and says that she will go into a solitary cell as punishment for being a monster of vanity. She feels she cannot face the world. Such self-loathing and self-blame are very true to the shattering of confidence that she has gone through. She needs to be restored to some sense of self-worth in order to function in the world once more.
In Il bel pianto Disinganno and Tempo welcome Bellezza’s penitent tears. With this beautiful duet, their final utterance, they relinquish their advisory stance, stepping back into the position of approving commentators. Bellezza advances now without their prompting. She shows she is not narcissistic or self-enclosed in her misery, in that she offers Piacere the option of sharing Truth with her—or of leaving her for ever. She now is free of his control of her to the extent that she takes no notice of his reaction, as he disappears like a cloud in a storm, confessing in the central section of Come nembo (himself now sounding like a lost child) that he is entirely composed of deceit. Praying in the final recitative ‘let my actions respond to my great desire’, Bellezza recognizes that faith and remorse alone are not enough; she has moved on from all-consuming self-reproach to a new equilibrium and the intention to live well.
Bellezza is praying to her guardian angel, and since this is a Christian work, its end is dependence on God, not self-reliance. Without belief in life after death, this Everyman drama would be very different. But it is the meshing of its religious-moral didacticism with psychological insight, fully realized in music, that makes Il trionfo one of Handel’s most intensely, most realistically and most satisfyingly human works.
Ruth Smith © 2008