Händel – Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, March 8 2005
La Bellezza: Veronica Cangemi. Il Piacere: Ann Hallenberg. Il Disinganno: Sonia Prina. Il Tempo: Pavol Breslik. Le Concert d’Astrée under Emmanuelle Haïm, conductor.
The Triumph of Time and Greed, or Impatience Punished
You may remember (but probably don’t) that in December I reviewed another Händel concert by Emmanuelle Haïm and her gang. I wrote “It’s a long time since I heard quite such an ‘unreconstructed’ HIP ensemble” and was, apparently not alone in my opinion, as on a French bulletin board someone commented that in a single concert Ms Haïm had cancelled out 30 years of progress in baroque performance practice.

This time they were back with a gorgeously elaborate and Italianate cantata, a 150-minute allegorical debate between beauty, pleasure, time and disillusion. The last two win, of course. Well, the orchestra was a good deal better than on December 4. For a start, there were more instruments - safety in numbers? They managed a nice, warm, boxy sound, the sort that people in Britain associate with port and sherry commercials shown on TV over the Christmas period.

However, there were still considerable problems of both articulation and intonation among the various soloists, from the lead violin, via the oboes and bassoons, to the continuo cellists; and there were persistent problems getting the instruments to "speak" at the right time, rather than simply quacking. These are things we all thought had disappeared from Paris when Malgloire was exiled to the slagheaps of the far north. Back in December, I opined that it was fit only for a village church. This time, it was alright for the main hall of a biggish provincial city. But - again – was it good enough for the Champs Elysées, Paris’s most beautiful and perhaps most prestigious venue?

I can’t help wondering if Haïm is, in her enthusiasm (her enthusiasm is not in doubt, though it's a bit comical to see: “Woody Woodpecker,” a friend of mine calls her, as she darts and swoops and sways about in her chic, black yet rather Watteau-like cassock), simply aiming too high: highly virtuoso works played very fast, in fancy venues... Even she fumbled the notes as she switched from conducting to harpsichord to chamber organ.

Veronica Cangemi isn't as good as she ought to be. She can manage phenomenal speed, but at the expense of power or projection (in other words, the faster she sings, the less you hear) and in any case she likes to sing - for effect, presumably, like Von Otter - as if she's marking at rehearsals; you never have the feeling she's just opening her throat and letting out a full sound.

The mezzo, Ann Hallenberg, and especially the rather sexy/dykey-looking Italian alto Sonia Prina (in black flares and an ample décolleté) were more interesting and apparently just as capable of speed. The only spontaneous applause was in fact for Prina. The tenor was overshadowed by the ladies. He sounded (and looked) somehow as if he hadn't had time to learn the part or was even sight-reading.

So much for the first half. For part two, I translate from a poster on a French board:

“So we met up at the intermission and couldn’t agree on what we’d just heard, but I don’t want to annoy those who found it satisfactory. So, on to the second part. One after the other, a magnificent duet between the alto and tenor, a lively quartet (‘Voglio tempo per risolvere’), a wink at Rinaldo with ‘Lascia la sina’ sung by Hallenberg (time stood still…), on it went until Cangemi’s final aria, in tune and in a zone - was this the same singer as in the first part? Delirious applause, and the quartet was encored. Everything perfect and Cangemi literally [sic] exploded. No more stress, the singers were in harmony, totally involved and the audience was with them too, delighted because nothing had led them to expect such a vocal feast. The orchestra was still as shaky, but we were no longer paying attention. You had to be there to believe it:”

Well, I wasn’t there. At the end of the first part, the thought of hanging on in until 11 while beauty and pleasure chewed the fat with time and disillusion, and dining at midnight, got the better of me, so while Cangemi was “exploding” I was already tucking into Sauerkraut, in honour of the “caro Sassone.” Time and hunger had triumphed, but my impatience was punished.

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