By David Gregson
The current program cover says it all for me. “Historically informed. Vibrantly performed. Bach Collegium San Diego.” It is a privilege to have this organization in our community. This time they were playing in two venues: St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, La Jolla (May 30) and San Diego History Center, Balboa Park (May 31). The work — Händel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment, HWV 46a). A triumph it was indeed.
Because it does not employ a chorus or a traditionally dramatic or Biblical text, Händel’s seldom heard Il Trionfo (1707) is perhaps more of a giant allegorical “morality” cantata than an oratorio. Nonetheless, this accomplished work, often designated as the composer’s first oratorio, is a piece of unalloyed genius. It’s amazing to me, as I look back over my lifetime, how so very much of Händel’s work has gradually emerged from undeserved obscurity — for, yes, there were many decades (and earlier, even a century or two) when almost everything but the Messiah was out of fashion.
Now I marvel at my own accumulation of LPs, CDs and DVDs that contain Händel’s operas, oratorios and instrumental music. At age 73, I can say that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach has always been easier to come by in the form of recordings and live performance. Today Händel and Bach have at last achieved equal profiles on disc and performance venues.
Fittingly it was Ruben Valenzuela’s Bach Collegium San Diego that presented a superb performance of Il Trionfo on the day after my birthday, May 29, at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. The event was not in my honor, of course, but I regarded it as the best of presents. The four vocal soloists were remarkable — Estelí Gomez (soprano); Nell Snaidas (soprano); Janelle DeStefano (mezzo soprano); and Aaron Sheehan (tenor) — as were the musicians led by Valenzuela.
Because the young Händel was still reeling aesthetically from his trip to Rome at age 26, Il trionfo reflects a fresh and forceful Italian influence. It is no simple thing for singers to master this style, and the assuredness of the Collegium artists was once of the great pleasures of the evening.
Dramatically the work is amusingly quaint — although any student of world literature would not find such a text at all surprising. Allegorical poems abound, especially in English and Italian. In this one, the protagonists and antagonists are Beauty, Pleasure, Time and Enlightenment personified. Our pleasure comes from the music, the wonderful arias and deft instrumentation, but the poem is not terribly sophisticated or uplifting. And yet it is the work of a Roman Catholic, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili.
Here’s the narrative synopsis from the program: “Bellezza (Beauty) gazes into a mirror, accepting that she will not remain beautiful. Piacere (Pleasure) assures her that she will, while in return Bellezza swears eternal fidelity to Piacere. Tempo (Time) and Disinganno (Enlightenment [or Disillusionment]) dispute Piacere’s assurances, stating that Beauty must fade. The two sides start a philosophical and spiritual argument for the soul of Bellezza, who gradually comes to the realization that she must turn away from her life of vanity and hedonism in a spirit of true penitence.” Well, it’s definitely Händel to the rescue on this text!
Not so many weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing a superb Bach B Minor Mass with the Collegium, and I did not budge from my seat, even for a lengthy intermission. But this work, at a length of almost three hours, found my back lodged in the corner crevice of a rigid St. James church pew — and I confess the strain was too much for my chronic back pain. I should have brought cushions. I rarely if ever abandon a performance before its conclusion, but in this case Pain and Time won out over Pleasure and I had to flee with Beauty humming in my ears. Supremely reliable friends assure me what I missed was every bit as good as what I heard.