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The climax to Part I arrives in Pleasure's aria Questa è la reggia mia, imposingly capped by an instrumental sonata: really a miniature organ concerto wherein Handel himself, as the 'composing mortal' ultimately responsible for the outcome of the conflict and contest, demonstrates in partially improvised music that some resolution of contrariety is obligatory, not because Beauty and Pleasure are too inchoate to make sense in 18th century terms, but simply because on their premises life, however momentarily exciting, cannot be sustained. To conclude Part 1 the four voices sing in sundry ensembles and so tentatively affect one another. Beauty's coloratura remains very fast but grows a shade tight-lipped and severe. Pleasure's jittery arabesques admit to the possibility of alternative paths through the dark forest, while doubting whether one can do more than foster 'presenti contenti', without yearning after an unambiguous 'immagin di bene'.

So Part I of the oratorio, led by La Belezza and Il Piacere, puts the case, as much crazily as jubilantly, for Human Perfectability. Part II, presented by Time, introduces us, in an appropriately paradoxical metaphor, to the 'theatre' of Truth -- a mirror in which 'il falso rende al falso, il vero al vero'.  Pleasure's tremulous trills in her answering aria ('Chiudi, chiudi') confess to slightly shame-faced regret; and in more extended arias both the girls, individually and together, carol music at an andante pace, distinct from their delirium in Part I, poised between frailty and fatuity. A grander, graver aria, 'Io sperai trovar nel vero', gives guts to their growing-pains by way of dialogue between solo oboe and bassoon, leading to a vocal da capo that is tenderly ornamented and sweetly chromaticized. Time accuses the girls of wanting to 'have it both ways'; and Beauty seems to ask her 'Lord' to make her chaste, but not yet. Disillusion has the big moment here, her aria 'Q'uanta t'aima è più bella' being in a remorselessly regular rhythm that might be a time-piece running down. Although Time himself has his moment of dubiety in describing life's 'treacherous tempest', this proves to be a Moment of Truth since it leads into complex ensembles in trio and quartet, generating tremendous tension from conflicts within the psyche: which explains why Handel's youthful oratorio is prophetic of some of the supreme operas and oratorios of his maturity. An intimation of this occurs in Pleasure's famous 'Lascia la spina', with its pathetically broken phrases and fraught silences -- an aria borrowed from the opera Almira, composed just before Handel's Italian venture, and revived for a later opera, Rinaldo, since Handel was never frugal with his palpable hits.

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Copyright © 29 July 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK







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