Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno is an oratorio written by a 22 year old Handel on a libretto by Cardinal Pamphili in 1707, a text of beautiful rhetoric and deep philosophical insight. Only four characters share the stage, the personifications of Beauty (la Bellezza), Pleasure (il Piacere), Time (il Tempo) and Insight (il Disinganno). The word “Disinganno”, often translated as Truth, actually means the process of unveiling truth, so a translation like “knowledge” or “insight” (the one chosen at the Salzburg Festival) is more apt. Bellezza and Piacere choose to indulge in empty pleasures and to ignore the passing of time, but Tempo and Disinganno try (and succeed) to convince Bellezza to abandon such an empty life and devote herself to virtue, and an existence of higher meaning. There is no real plot: the four characters, scene after scene, display their understanding of the world, until Piacere, Tempo and Disinganno end up fighting over their command of Bellezza, who is torn and confused until she chooses the path of righteousness, leaving Piacere scorned and furious.

Mélissa Petit (Bellezza)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

Director Robert Carsen performed a small miracle with this text, which is very far from modern sensibilities, managing to render it relatable and relevant. The opera starts with a reality show: The Next Top Model 2021, where Piacere, Tempo and Disinganno are the three judges and Bellezza is the winner. The show is projected during the overture, a video filmed in Salzburg; right after her victory Bellezza is surrounded by photographers and film-makers, while Piacere convinces her to sign a contract. Bellezza is invited to Piacere’s palace, which is a disco club where they indulge in, well, sex and drugs and rock'n'roll (or Baroque music, as the case may be). The “lovely young man” (Un leggiadro giovinetto) who entertains the crowd with music is a handsome DJ who Bellezza seduces while everybody dances to the Baroque rhythm. I realise that this description could fit any number of Euro-trash productions in the last 30 years or so, but Carsen’s touch was light and intelligent and it fitted the music and the spirit of the text beautifully.

Cecilia Bartoli (Piacere), Mélissa Petit (Bellezza)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

Time, as a stern priest, and Insight, as a psychotherapist, convince Beauty to leave the mirror of deception (represented by the lighted mirror in the dressing rooms) and to gaze into the mirror of truth: a stage-sized mirror reflecting the whole audience. The idea is powerful: we, the audience, are the real world; we are the truth where Beauty must live. We are all transported along her coming-of-age journey from shallow pleasures to truth and virtue, suffering with her.

The musical production was just as successful: Gianluca Capuano led Les Musiciens du Prince in a powerful and energetic reading of the score, with tempi on the fast side, and excruciatingly beautiful pianissimi and highlights. The theorbo was clearly audible in many passages and it was a delight. The four singers were nothing short of excellent. Charles Workman’s luminous, strong tenor gave Time all the authority it needed, helped by his striking stage presence. Lawrence Zazzo, as Insight, showed great Baroque style, his countertenor powerful and only at times slightly acidic: a beautiful performance overall. Beauty was Mélissa Petit, a young French soprano who proved herself worthy of such a demanding part. And Pleasure was Cecilia Bartoli, artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, superb singer and diva, who lived up to her fame with a spectacular performance.

Mélissa Petit (Bellezza), Charles Workman (Tempo), Lawrence Zazzo (Disinganno)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

The musical highlights were too many to report. Zazzo and Workman sang the duet “Il bel pianto dell’aurora” while walking from the stage into the pitch dark theatre, each along one of the side walls, keeping perfect tempo and matching dynamics without seeing either each other or the conductor – a case of musical telepathy.

Petit sang her last aria “Tu del ciel ministro eletto”, where la Bellezza promises her pure heart to God, on a bare stage, open on the back stage, walking back, until she exited through the last door into the street. Beauty leaves the fake world for the real one. Her interpretation was moving, her voice soaring with no effort, the scene incredibly powerful.

But the absolute peak was “Lascia la spina”, the tender aria where il Piacere, aware she’s losing her grip on la Bellezza, tries for the last time to convince her to leave pain and suffering, and turn to joy and pleasure. Bartoli’s performance was magical, her filati out of this world. A video of Beauty’s affectionate encounter with the DJ seductively suggests the pleasures of love, but the melancholy in Bartoli’s voice reminds us that not even love will save us from decay and disillusionment. Beauty abandons Pleasure (and love) for reality and truth, leaving us heartbroken.