Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at La Scala

I can understand why it was thought a good idea to stage Handel’s early oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. An allegory of how beauty and concomitant pleasure are transient and superficial makes for good theatre. Moreover the young Handel’s dramatic musical imagery is striking. For example, as the character Beauty realizes that repentance and salvation necessarily involve a rejection of all she has hitherto enjoyed, her aria accompanied by a solo mournful oboe becomes jagged chromaticism. And when Pleasure is on the point of losing out to Time and Disillusionment he responds with a brilliant outburst of furious, florid notes.

But how should it be  staged? The production by Jürgen Flimm and Gudrun Hartmann, first seen in Berlin and now revived at La Scala, sets the piece in an up-market restaurant, inhabited principally by rich and feckless individuals (superb design and costumes by Erich Wonder and Florence Von Gerkan). While the four allegorical characters have their debate, an assortment of extras come and go, reflecting the broader basis to reality. Although the ending was convincing and moving – Beauty wearing a nun’s habit left in the dark, deserted restaurant, as the tired waiters and a cleaner tidy up –the spectacle as a whole seemed to me too heavy and showy for Benedetto Pemphilij’s lean and sententious text.

Nor was the musical side completely successful. Conductor Diego Fasolis certainly revealed an affection for the score, but the musicians of the La Scala Orchestra seemed not at their ease with the idiom. Sara Mingardo, as Disillusionment, deployed her outstanding contralto to great effect, but neither Lucia Cirillo as Pleasure, nor Leonardo Cortellazzi as Time, wholly mastered their arias, and Martina Jankova’s soprano lacked purity of tone as Beauty.