The definition of noise
Almeida at King's Cross
06/27/2002 - and 1, 2, 4 July 2002
George Frideric Handel: Arias from Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno
Gillian Keith (Bellezza), Andrew Watts (Piacere), William Purefoy (Disinganno), Stephen Richardson (Tempo)
Gary Cooper (conductor), Nigel Lowery (director)
Gerald Barry: The triumph of beauty and deceit
Andrew Watts (Pleasure), William Purefoy (Truth), Stephen Richardson (Time), Roderick Williams (Deceit), Christopher Lemmings (Beauty)
Thomas Adès (conductor), Nigel Lowery (director)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Gerald Barry's Triumph of beauty and deceit is in some respects, as its title suggests, a direct inversion of Handel's Trionfo del tempo e del disinganno. Meredith Oakes' libretto offers a smutty deconstruction of the sanctimonious conventions of moralizing allegory, with a liberal sprinkling of quoted platitudes with very rude double meanings. Barry's music consists of a complex pattern of mirrored and transformed melodic lines characterized by extreme leaps and complex tonality as well as a breakneck pace. And the moral, such as it is, is the mirror of Handel's (or of his librettist's): pleasure is all there is since time and truth reveal everything to be transient. But at the end of Barry's work, a thoroughly degraded Beauty sings a touchingly weary duet with Pleasure, "You are my delight, my pleasure by night, and I'll roll you nine times before morning", that has a strangely similar effect to the Bellezza's languorous final aria in Il trionfo. Perhaps both works in the end suggest that music is all there is, and you can enjoy it or not as you choose.
Given Barry's Irish background, it is tempting to wonder what his attitude is to the counter-reformation ideology of Il trionfo as well as to Handel's later glorification of English conquest of Popery. But The triumph also seems to make sense as homage to Handel as a composer's composer, and as another kind of exuberant excess within complex formality. As with many of Barry's works and utterances, though, it is difficult to say for certain what is substance and what is windup. And if you are in the right frame of mind, that in itself is exhilarating.
The triumph was commissioned and first produced by Channel 4 for television. These performances for Almeida Opera at King's Cross are its first staged production, in a double bill with an ingenious selection from the 1737 version of Handel's Il trionfo. Nigel Lowery's production of both works makes sense, but has a touch of humourless jokiness about it that occasionally blunts the impact of the music. The figures in Il trionfo are, picking up on the relentless didacticism of the work, presented as schoolgirls, although three of them are sung by men; their arguments are the traditional ones of swots versus tarts, with Stephen Richardson's plodding Tempo an amusing misfit. There is the door of a school or church, with a working clock above it, on one side of the set. In The triumph it turns out to be the other entrance of the sleazy motel to which Pleasure, a camp satyr, takes Beauty, a schoolboy. Both sets have a graffito of skeletons making love (though not in a biscuit tin).
The performances of both works were thoroughly enjoyable, and avoided the potential dullness of the productions. The singers in Il tempo sang the music straight with straightforward characterization, and if it wasn't as funny as it might have been, it turned out to be well worth hearing. Gillian Keith's pert, petite Bellezza looked and sounded most alluring, while William Purefoy as Disinganno was close to being a true contralto, quietly beautiful in sound. Andrew Watts as Pleasure (in clunky high heels and rolled down socks) stopped the show with a heroic "Come nembo" that revealed him as a dramatic soprano.
The triumph was more difficult musically and also had a more complex staging, but the performers made it work so well that you were interested in the substance of what was going on and forgot to be impressed with the difficulty of what they were doing. Christopher Lemmings was a rather bland Beauty, while Roderick Williams was a gorgeous Deceit (a balance for Truth to give Pleasure a chance). Richardson and Purefoy were translated into a shaggy Father Time and a cassocked low-ranking cleric respectively, and both performed the music with remarkable confidence and coherence. Richardson was also very funny . Watts pretty much stole the show again as Pleasure, though, wonderfully naughty and at times making his music quite beautiful.
The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group gave spirited performances in both works, strikingly so in The triumph. The conductor for the Barry didn't look terribly like the advertised Thomas Adès.