This early allegorical oratorio (written by Georg Frideric Händel at a mere 22 while on an Italian sojourn) already shows the inventiveness of this genius (and one can understand why the composer cannibalised the work for his later compositions). The libretto is no more than a poetic and moralistic conversation among its four allegorical personae, all individually characterised by the singers all armed with marvellous technique and emotional expression: Bellezza/Beauty (French soprano Natalie Dessay) is fought over by Piacere/Pleasure (Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg) on one side, keeping her enticed with the joys of present "superficial" and pleasurable pursuits, and Enlightenment/Disinganno (Italian contralto Sonia Prina) and Tempo/Time (Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik) on the other. Of course, the libretto having been written by Händel's pal, the Cardinal, Benedetto Pamphili, it's inevitable that the "virtuous" personae of Enlightenment and Time will win in the end, and Beauty agrees to take on the hairshirt and do penance for enjoying life too much. And yet, the irony of it all is that the very music Händel wrote for this oratorio will bring such pleasures to its hearers and would likely draw the disapproval of Time and Enlightenment for its "corrupting" beauty!
The work is performed with spirit and verve as well as sensitivity by the singers, guided by Baroque conductor Emmanuelle Haïm directing her Le Concert d'Astrée playing on period instruments. Although her over-bright soprano took some getting used to by me, Dessay becomes simply delightful in her very many arias (about nine of them, by my last count), with coloratura passages as in "Un pensiero nemico di piace", "Della vita mortale" and "Un schiera di Piacere", all joyfully rendered and proving of little difficulty for her agile technique. Hallenberg gets to deploy her magnificent, incandescent mezzo in the work's most beautiful and famous arias, including the exquisitely languourous "Lascia la spina", the courtly "Un leggiadro giovinetto", and the furious "Tu giurasti di mai non lasciarmi" and "Come nombe che fugge col vento." Prina brings a measure of majesty to arias like "Più non cura" and "Crede l'uom chegli riposi", entrancing you with her dark, smooth and warm alto, with some impressive virtuosic runs in the middle of the latter aria. Finally, Breslik holds his own among the women as the authoritative and father-like chastising figure of Tempo, with his expressive and textured vocal that's hard to ignore, as in his affecting "Urne voi". On the ensemble pieces, the singers all blend together superbly, and one can get a taste of that excitement in the YouTube music video featuring the quartet singing the exhilarating "Voglio Tempo".
Additionally, director Haïm plays a mean organ on several tracks, with excellent sonata-like passages on "Taci: Qual sono ascolto?" and "Un leggiadro giovinetto". She's actually made this organ-leery listener more appreciative of that instrument.
This is a most welcome addition to the growing recorded Händel repertoire, and one highly recommended to anyone already a Händel fan, or one just starting to learn about the Baroque master's works.