George Friedric Handel’s Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno premièred in Rome in 1707, and was the composer’s first oratorio. The story of a competition between Beauty, Pleasure, Time and Disillusionment, the message of the oratorio is simple and devastating: we are young and carefree for only a short time, and then comes age and inevitable death. There is no point in ignoring it. Jürgen Flimm’s staged production at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the cruelty of the game that Time and Disillusionment play with Beauty.

Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno
© Bei Hermann und Clärchen Baus

Handel’s oratorio went through a trio of metamorphoses throughout the composer’s lifetime. Originally written in 1707 as the two-part Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (“The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment”), Handel tinkered with the music and eventually expanded the oratorio into a three-part work entitled Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verita and its English translation, The Triumph of Time and Truth (though as Handel was aging and unwell at the time, it is doubtful how much work he himself actually did on the English version). Very few composers as prolific as Handel can say that their first oratorio was also their last.

Flimm’s production updates the oratorio’s action to a mid-century restaurant. Bellezza, a young beauty with Marilyn Monroe-like hair and a variety of chic evening gowns, admires herself in a mirror and delights in the pleasures of life. Her dinner companion, Piacere ("Pleasure"), agrees, and the two of them attract the attention of fellow dinner guests Tempo and Disinganno. A game is suggested. Tempo, Disinganno, and Piacere will each try to convince Bellezza of the power of their personal virtue. Tempo and Disinganno team up and ultimately convince Bellezza that youth and pleasure are but a fleeting moment, and that to devote her life to them is futile. Gleefuly, they dress the young woman, shorn of her hair, dress, and jewels, in a nun’s habit and leave the restaurant arm in arm, while Piacere reacts in horror.

It is a strange production, filled with supers in evening dress, drunken hipsters, abandoned brides, incongruous flying nuns, and a spontaneously combusting alcoholic, but the music trumps the action. As Bellezza, the acclaimed Spanish soprano Sylvia Schwartz delivered a passionate performance. Her voice was clear and beautiful, and her final aria, delivered when she was shorn of hope and turning her life to God, was spine tingling in its grief and hope.

Soprano Inga Kalna sang the role of Piacere, with a world-weariness and cynicism that vanished when she realized the danger attending her friend Bellezza. Kalna’s greatest moment in a fine performance was the aria “Lascia la spina”, in which she pleaded with Bellezza to turn from the path of (perceived) self-destruction and remember the beauty of life, not the pain that Tempo and Disinganno were showing her. It was in vain, and Kalna beautifully sang and acted Piacere’s horror and disgust at her friend’s fate.

The nefarious Tempo and Disinganno were sung by tenor Charles Workman and contralto Delphine Galou. Two gentlemen with black hearts, they worked together to destroy the peace of Bellezza and Piacere, and they did it with considerable charm and sophistication. Delphine Galou was the highlight of the evening; despite her strange costumes (a slumming gent’s suit in the first act and 18th century men’s court clothes and a bald cap in the second), she commanded the attention of everyone in the house with her silky and sexy voice and vibrant stage presence. Charles Workman’s fine tenor was remarkably sinister, and he, too, commanded attention. Never was there any doubt that the two of them would win; their powers were too strong for the youthful Bellezza to resist. Workman’s Tempo was oppressive: as he told Bellezza, he was always there, and there would be no argument with him. Galou’s Disinganno oozed charisma, knowing that disillusionment was always only one heartbeat away. It was a masterful performance.

Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, led by Sébastien Rouland, gave an excellent performance. Their playing was elegant and precise, and they never sacrificed beauty for that precision. Special mention must be given to Francesco Corti and Thibault Noally, who performed an interlude onstage on organ and violin. Dressed as Baroque-era musicians, they played with great gusto. All of the musicians were spot on; it is a shame that the busy staging often distracted from the music. Why was there an abandoned bride drinking at the next table? What was the point of the fashion show happening in the bar? What was up with the silent nuns who appeared at the windows every so often? Who knows? Whatever it all meant, the singers and musicians outdid themselves. Musically, it was an excellent evening.