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Opera Neo’s ‘Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno’ serenely showcases Handel’s Italian period



The rarely performed baroque oratorio was presented with a clever family-style concept by director Sydney Roslin


BY LUKE SCHULZE, JULY 10, 2023 10:02 AM PT FOR THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE


What a year 1707 was.


In that year, two 22-year old German composers wrote some of their most precocious and important vocal music, pieces that to this day remain central to the repertoire.


One of the composers was Johann Sebastian Bach. Landlocked in a home country that he would never leave, he wrote several of his magnificent early cantatas, including“Christ Lag in Todesbanden” and “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,” works that synthesized and expanded upon the models of Lutheran sacred music.


The other, a young George Frideric Handel, was in Rome, greedily drinking up as much of the Italianate musical traditions as he could. It was there that Handel wrote the first of his oratorios, “Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno,” or “The Triumph of Time andDisillusion,” which received an absolutely brilliant treatment by Opera Neo at theConrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla on Saturday night.


With this piece, Handel barges noisily through the swinging doors of the saloon ofEighteenth-century oratorio tradition, already fully at ease with the Baroque practice begun a generation or two before, of alternating recitatives (sung dialogue) and arias.While the parallels between Handel and Bach are plentiful, Handel shows even in this early work his uncanny gift for imbuing all musical moments, even strictly instrumental ones, with an expansive dramatic narrative and scope.


This drama doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense; rather, we are presented with an allegorical debate between four personified qualities: Beauty (our ingenue protagonist)and Pleasure (with whom Beauty has a delicious, if dangerous, early alliance) are set against Time and Disillusion (better translated as counsel, truth, or enlightenment).Time and Counsel battle Pleasure as they vie for Beauty’s eternal commitment. The libretto was written by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, during a time in which opera itself had been banned in Rome on moral grounds. The entire narrative, really more of an abstract philosophical life lesson, is meant to — and does with astounding depth —instruct us, to make art of our own lives, mirroring an ethical dilemma we still face today.


Opera Neo is a group folks should know. Their production was in all ways delightful and impressive. The casting of characters was superb: Brian Skoog was a masterful commendatore as Time, his sable tenor voice rich and strong as he predicted a terrible future in the recitative “The hand of Time pulls down the great colossus of the sun.” Mezzo-soprano Lauren Randolph was a perfect, sad Counsel: superior but sympathetic, she sang down to Beauty with a range of emotions and an arresting lower register in her heart-wrenching aria “Humanity thinks Time is asleep.”


Pleasure, set from the outset as a dangerous siren, was sung with infectious and wicked purpose by Stephanie Doche. At every turn, her character pulls at Beauty like the friend from whom parents want their children to steer clear, as in her aria “A graceful young man,” which beckons Beauty away from the path of righteousness. Ashley Fabian was an astounding Beauty throughout, manifesting all the stages of her moral journey with dramatic and virtuosic vocal variation; her duet with Pleasure was astonishing as the two youthful characters joined in thrilling parallel cascading scales. All of Opera Neo’s singers understand the dramatic details of Handel’s vocal writing, in which melismas become emotional flourishes, alternatively celebratory, spiteful, pathetic.


The orchestra, under the baton of Jory Vinikour, was balanced and emotionally powerful. Conducting ably from the harpsichord and organ, he led period instruments that provided soft string edges and gritty wind sounds that mirrored text conceits as the ensemble moved gracefully in and out of the dialogue.


All of these gripping musical performances came in service of an equally fine directorial conception by Sydney Roslin. Roslin imagines this contest for Beauty’s loyalty as a family affair, with Time and Truth cast as parents, battling the unhealthy influence ofPleasure on their young daughter Beauty. Roslin’s astute treatment of the libretto illuminates, rather than invents, latent numerous emotional sub-themes: the meretricious delight in juvenile social elitism, the often thankless path of the moral higher ground, and in an especially moving moment, when Counsel dons the jacket of pleasure, which just doesn’t quite fit, the rueful loneliness of self-denial.


Opera Neo’s summer opera festival concludes later this week with “Mitridate,” Mozart’s first opera — composed when he was just 14 years old — at 7:30 p.m. July 14 and 15 atUCSD Park & Market in East Village. For tickets, visit operaneo.com/2023-season.


Schulze is a freelance writer.

Copyright © 2023, The San Diego Union-Tribune


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