Early Handel Oratorio a Rewarding Surprise in La Jolla

Ruben Valenzuela [photo (c) Bjorn Bjerede]

Ruben Valenzuela [photo (c) Bjorn Bjerede]

It is no secret why the world’s major opera houses do not present the earliest operas of Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini. They’re terrible. It took these great composers several attempts to hone their craft on the road to becoming great composers. George Frideric Handel, on the other hand, was brilliant from the get-go, as his 1707 Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, his first oratorio, most decidedly proves.

Ruben Valenzuela’s Bach Collegium San Diego presented an astonishing, assured performance of this rarely undertaken work on Friday (May 29) at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, featuring four vocal soloists who handled the composer’s effusive, newly acquired operatic style with confidence and finesse. Handel was all of 21 when he landed in Rome to absorb Italy’s thriving style of opera, and within a mere six months he had completed and staged Il Trionfo.

Although he went on to create a host of successful Italian operas and English oratorios (he would never have had the slightest interest in churning out English-lauguage oratorios—including that insufferably omnipresent Messiah—had London society not tired of Italian opera in the way that Ian Campbell recently asserted San Diego audiences have), he kept coming back to this early work. He revised Il Trionfo for performance more than once, and its final incarnation was given a complete English language transformation with the title “The Triumph of Time and Truth.” It was his valedictory opus before his death in 1759.[php snippet=1]

The English title indicates the subject matter of of Il Trionfo: four characters that embody the elements of beauty, pleasure, time, and enlightenment who then traverse the logical arguments to conclude that the pursuit of pleasure is vain and living a noble life is the only rewarding ethical choice. Only the sparkling musical invention of Handel could make three hours of such discourse both pleasurable and edifying.

The curious libretto was written by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, a member of Rome’s trinity of clerical cultural arbiters who initially sponsored the precocious young German musician and introduced him to Arcangelo Corelli, dean of Italian composers and some 30 years Handel’s senior. Corelli was so impressed with Handel’s music that he agreed to play first violin at the work’s premiere in one of the Cardinal’s ornate palaces.

The alert reader is justified in asking, “If this work is so wonderful, why is it essentially unknown?” Because it has no choral parts, church choirs and oratorio societies have no use for it, and not enough leaders of early music ensembles have the curiosity of Ruben Valenzuela. That is my short answer, which I would gladly amplify to any soul foolish and patient enough to inquire.

Soprano Estelí Gomez was perfectly typecast as Piacere (Pleasure) because her singing evoked unadulterated pleasure: gleaming, well-supported lines delivered with passionate declamation and limitless verve. Her brilliant final aria, “Come nembo che fugge col vento,” came across as a canny precursor to Mozart’s celebrated vengeance aria sung by the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte.

While tenor Aaron Sheehan gave a sterling performance of French Baroque repertory earlier this year at St. James-by-the Sea

Aaron Sheehan [photo courtesy of the performer]

Aaron Sheehan [photo courtesy of the performer]

for the Early Music Society, as Tempo (Time) he was even better. His elegantly arched, supple phrasing caressed every word of the text, and his timbre revealed the luxury of Italianate warmth, notably in his upper range. Too many Handelian tenors blanch into that English choirboy head tone as they ascend, but Sheehan’s tone only got richer as he ascended.

His voice proved an elegant foil for the creamy mezzo-soprano of Janelle DeStefano as Disinganno (Enlightenment). These singers enjoyed several delectable duets, and the few ensembles Handel provided demonstrated how vividly all the voices combined under Valenzuela’s clear direction. As Bellezza (Beauty), soprano Nell Snaidas dispatched a daunting amount of sparkling fioritura with laudable security, although she occasionally sacrificed the quality of her sound with a startling, fiery outburst.

Concertmaster Pierre Joubert polished all those flashy solos intended for Corelli and disciplined his strings admirably throughout this demanding score. Oboists Kathryn Montoya and Margaret Owens stood out in a plenitude of ornate obbligato duos, and cellist Heather Vorweck added graceful contrapuntal solos in addition to her solid continuo work. Keyboardist Michael Sponseller hopped from harpsichord to chamber organ to provide deft and inventive accompaniment, especially in the recitatives, and Valenzuela played a suave organ solo in the miniature organ concerto Handel spliced into the oratorio. After all, this work was Hanel’s Roman calling card, and he needed to advertise all of his talents: composing, conducting from the harpsichord, and improvising at the organ.

This pair of Handel concerts concluded the Bach Collegium San Diego’s 2013-14 season, but the ensemble returns in September of 2014 to launch a new season stuffed with J. S. Bach and Handel, as well as a tragédie en musique by their Gallic counterpart Marc Antoine Charpentier.

[box] This performance was given on May 30, 2014, at St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, 749 Prospect St., La Jolla, CA, and was repeated on May 31, 2014, at the San Diego History Center in San Diego’s Balboa Park.

The organization’s 2014-15 season opens September 26 & 27, 2014, with a concert of music from the composers of St. Thomas Church, Leipzig.



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