George Frideric Handel - Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno
Festival d' Aix-en-Provence, 2016
Emmanuelle Haïm, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Sabine Devieilhe, Franco Fagioli, Sara Mingardo, Michael Spyres
ARTE Concert - 6th July 2016
Written by the young 22 year old composer in 1707, Handel's first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno ('The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment') is quite evidently an allegorical work. As such there can surely be no objection for a director like Krzysztof Warlikowski applying his usual (unusual) distinctive treatment in this production at Aix-en-Provence. Warlikowski's production succeeds on both those levels, and under the musical direction of Emmanuelle Haim, it's something of a musical delight as well.
The main purpose of a staging of such a work is surely to find the universal characteristics within the oratorio's contemplation of the struggle between the Beauty, Pleasure, Time and Disenchantment and present it in such a way that makes it meaningful to a modern audience. If you can dramatise a work that was never intended to be performed theatrically in a full staging, so much the better. Warlikowski makes his pitch perfectly clear, as he often does, through an opening short film.
Beauty has been indulging in rather too much Pleasure, popping pills in a nightclub, ending up looking rather the worse for wear on a trolley being wheeled through the corridors of a hospital's emergency unit. When she comes around, Beauty finds herself in a room that is a cross between a cinema and an operating theatre, a place of the mind evidently where - sprawled out, still looking somewhat wasted, mascara running and throwing up occasionally - she can contemplate the ravages of Time and the Disillusionment for the truth of what follows on from her devotion to Pleasure.
And really you need someone like Warlikowski directing a somewhat 'academic' work like this. There's nothing academic about Handel's music of course - Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno has many pieces that would later feature in some of the composer's greatest works, and the oratorio itself would be revised a number of times - but its sober reflections on mortality in the dry oratorio format don't necessarily lend themselves to great stage drama. There's is however never a dull moment here. Warlikowski brings it to life, and it is full of life, finding the human sentiments that lie behind the allegory and relating it to the tragedy of it all.
Helping fill up the stage Warlikowski inevitably employs a larger cast than the four singers and the chorus who contribute to the oratorio, but the extras are not just there to make up the numbers. Most prominently there is a young man, dancing to the rhythms on his headphones - which nonetheless fits the youthful rhythm of Handel's music perfectly - who perhaps represents Youth. His function is to illustrate how beauty, caught up in its own pleasure, is oblivious to time. Youth passes however - quite literally here, the young man ending up on an operating trolley, mourned with heart rending sadness by Beauty. But there are also many other young women who look on at the spectacle of Beauty's fall, all of it reminding you that there is nothing 'academic' about the subject.
This is by no means Warlikowski's only idea or contribution. The director includes a short film before the interval to bring the ghost of Jacques Derrida into the equation, and the division of the stage itself perhaps even resembles the two hemispheres of the brain separated by a corridor or cortex. One side is lit up while the other is in darkness but occasionally both sides spark with life, the left largely being the domain of Beauty and Pleasure, the right Time and Disillusionment. At significant points all four figures come together gathering around the table like a family; always in dispute, but dependent on each other to maintain a happy equilibrium.
There's much to admire in the staging and in how it manages to engage the spectator, but the beauty of Handel's music and the singing of the cast assembled here would be impressive enough on its own. Emmanuelle Haïm and her period instrument Concert d'Astrée ensemble give the work a wonderful edge, energy and rhythmic precision. Sabine Devieilhe is unquestionably the star that carries the show here, always impressive in technique, range and timbre, but investing the role of Beauty here with some degree of sensitivity. Her sparring and harmonising with Franco Fagioli's countertenor Pleasure is magnificent, the two making an attractive team. Michael Spyres is a wonderfully lyrical singer but his tenor voice is perhaps too 'sweet' for Time. Together with Sara Mingardo's Disillusionment however, this was a strong cast capable of finding the human depth and meaning in Benedetto Pamphili's libretto and Warlikowski's concept that is already there in Handel's music.
Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox