As part of his residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Thomas Ades was given a Green Umbrella concert, his choice of music, and his choice of role. Ades chose to conduct, and for music he chose “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit” (1995) by Gerald Barry. This was originally written for British television and broadcast by Channel 4; as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, Ades brought it back to open the 2002 festival, and it has began receiving performances since then, with performances scheduled for Paris and Amsterdam next year. Last night’s performance was the North American premiere.
“Triumph” is described as an “Opera in Two Acts”, which is misleading. It is an hour-long chamber oratorio for 16 instrumentalists and five singers (two countertenors, tenor, baritone, bass), with each singer representing a concept: Pleasure, Truth, Beauty, Deceit, and Time, respectively. As for two acts, there is merely an instrumental bridge between thoughts. Barry stated that the framework was “taken from” Handel’s oratorio “The Triumph of Time and Truth”. Without reading Handel’s libretto, it is easy to speculate on the effects of the contemporary re-examination which would have “Beauty” and “Deceit” replace “Time” and “Truth” as the triumphal spirits. From the performance of Barry’s version, “Pleasure” was truly triumphant. Several in the audience worked on applause to bring Ades, Barry, and the singers back on stage for more than the three times that occurred.
I have one problem with Barry’s work, and it’s a major problem: he writes music to be sung so that the words are incomprehensible. He ignores the rhythm of speech; worse, far too much of the time he works against natural rhythms. When Barry re-imagines the baroque coloratura, rather than supplying vocalize for the rapid notes, he too often uses a new syllable for each note. There are so many words in such a short period, that it was a challenge just to follow the libretto in the surtitles, much less match the words to any sound you heard from the stage. For a cantata about ideas, shouldn’t you really be able to grasp the ideas while listening to the music? I know that this approach doesn’t bother Ades, because as recently as in his “Tempest” he gave us music for Ariel that cannot be understood.
Given that problem, the music is quite interesting, sometimes fascinating. It demands excellent singers, which last night’s performance certainly had. Not a single role was easy, and some required exceptionally wide range and coloratura technique. I felt Andrew Watts was brilliant as Pleasure, and I can’t imagine a better performance. Here’s a link to the performers; they were all good. Of course the Phil’s musicians were good; they can handle anything, and usually do it quite well. Ades worked quite hard, as well; by the end of the performance, his shirt was soggy with sweat.
This site gives a 20 sound clips of a minute each (a third of the work!) so that you can get a feeling for the sound of Barry’s music, although I think last night’s performance was better than on this recording. (Sometimes the site’s response is slow.) You might start by listening to the last clip; this is from the final duet of Beauty and Pleasure, and you can understand the words, most of them, anyway. That clip also gives a feeling for the degree to which Barry played off Handel, and this isn’t always so clear while actually listening. Then tenth clip is the instrumental bridge between “acts”. To help you as you sample the clips, remember that the two countertenors are Pleasure (the major role) and Truth, the tenor is Beauty, the baritone is Deceit, and the bass (a wide-ranging bass) is Time. The samples give you only a feeling for Barry’s styles, they don’t convey how these blend into a cohesive, interesting whole.