In February 2014 at the Monte Music festival, Ashley Rego did a splendid job as concertmaster of Camerata Child’s Play India in a concert programme that included highlights from Handel’s landmark oratorio “Messiah”. Had someone to predict to him then that in 2015, he would be concertmaster of the orchestral forces in a production of another Handel oratorio, but in Austria, he might not have believed it.
But this is exactly what this young Goan lad has achieved in such a short time since he left our shores last year.
From 30 April to 9 June 2015, he will lead as Konzertmeister in seven concerts (two of which have already sold out) of an exciting staged production of Handel’s Italian oratorio from 1707, ‘Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno’ (The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment, HWV 46a) at the Landestheatre Linz, Austria. The ensemble and cast feature the most promising students of the Anton Bruckner Privat Universität Linz, so it is a testimony to Ashley’s diligent work and the esteem in which he is held by his peers that he leads them in this work.
In 1706, Georg Friedrich Händel was a young composer employed at harpsichordist at the Hamburg opera. He had already had one success (Almira 1705) to his name. Prince Ferdinand de Medici of Florence met Handel in Hamburg and encouraged him to travel to Italy, a literal ‘rite of passage’ not only for an artist but for a ‘gentleman’ at that time.
We know that in January 1707 Händel was in Rome, with the diarist Valesia noting that he “exhibited his prowess on the organ in the church of St John to the admiration of everybody”. This prowess got him the attention of the aristocracy and ecclesiastical figures, as well as his contemporary musicians, notably Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Caldara and Scarlatti father and son (Alessandro and Domenico). Händel’s ‘Italianate’ compositions from this period are full of inventiveness, and great youthfulness and vitality. Indeed, Händel himself regarded his own music from this period (1707-1710) highly, returning to it periodically for inspiration. Many of these are small-scale cantatas, written with aristocratic salons in mind, but he wrote three grander works: the ‘Roman’ oratorios Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La Resurrezione (1708); and the opera Agrippina (1709), intended for Venice.
Why oratorios for Rome, and an opera for Venice? Between 1698 and 1710, the Vatican did not take kindly to opera, and composers turned their attention to ‘sacred’ drama which in essence is the oratorio.
‘Il Trionfo’ is set to a text or libretto by one of Händel’s patrons in Rome, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili and most probably first performed at his palace. It was composed in the spring of 1707 and performed that summer. We know that the orchestra in that performance was led by the great Arcangelo Corelli himself! So absolutely no pressure there, Ashley!
Händel would revisit this oratorio at least twice in the next fifty years: in 1737, he (now living in England with the Anglicised named George Frideric Handel) revised and expanded it (from a two- to a three-section work, and adding choruses to cater to English expectations), naming this version ‘Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità’ (HWV 46b). In 1757, he revised it yet again (HWV 71), reworking the libretto into English, expanding it further and titling it ‘The Triumph of Time and Truth’. This is technically his final oratorio, as this ‘revised’ work post-dates ‘Jephtha (1751), which traditionally claims this honour.
Handel would return to the rich ‘mine’ of musical material in ‘Il Trionfo’ and ‘quarry it on more than thirty other occasions. Its most famous aria “Lascia la spina” (Leave the thorn) is reworked by him into the much more famous “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Leave me to weep) from his 1711 opera ‘Rinaldo’.
‘Il Trionfo’s 1707 avatar has often been overlooked because it has been overshadowed by Handel’s English oratorios and his more ‘traditional’ contemporary Italian examples. The 1707 version has no chorus, that quintessential ingredient of English oratorio invented almost entirely by Handel. It does not have the standard three-part structure of an oratorio, contains no action, and all its characters are allegorical, something not that common in the genre of oratorio.
These allegorical characters are Bellezza (Beauty, a young woman), Piacere (Pleasure, a young man), Tempo (Father Time) and Disinganno (literally ‘unillusion’ but better translated as Counsel, and depicted by an older man). In short, Time and Counsel eventually convince Beauty after an elaborate philosophical discussion that she must “shed her vanity and hedonism in a spirit of true repentance.”
Such characters and topics, especially those of penitence were well-visited in Counter-Reformation Italy. In fact it is argued that Bellezza is a virtual synonym for the iconic penitential heroine of the Catholic Church, Mary Magdalene. Handel scholar Ruth Smith does a superb psychological analysis of Pamphili’s libretto, concluding that “to be able to live with oneself in the long term, one must go below surface appearances, face the truth about oneself, and achieve balanced self-perception”.
“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.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 3 May 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)