Handel: Theodora

Handel: Theodora

Oratorio, opera, or each? Peter Quantrill seems at Handel’s Christian tragedy, and the stagings and recordings which have given it lengthy overdue recognition as his masterpiece

It is, apparently, unattainable to put in writing about Handel’s penultimate oratorio with out quoting the composer’s personal gloomy view of its failure on the field workplace when it was first carried out on the Covent Garden Theatre, London, in March 1750. ‘The Jews is not going to come to it as a result of it’s a Christian story; and the Ladies is not going to come as a result of it’s a virtuous one.’

So there you’re. As Handel hinted, Theodora occupies a novel place in his output, which can be why he was so keen on it. It is his solely narrative oratorio with a Christian topic, as distinct from the Old Testament tales of Belshazzar or Judas Maccabaeus, or the anthem-like assemblage of Messiah. His viewers wished trumpeting hallelujahs, ‘Jehovah with thunder arm’d’. He gave them Christian chastity, love and self-sacrifice.

Late Style

In transient: Theodora, who refuses to worship Jupiter and Caesar, is condemned by Valens, the Governor of Antioch, to turn out to be a temple prostitute. She is beloved by Didymus, a Roman soldier who has secretly transformed to Christianity and is shielded out of compassion by his instant superior, Septimus. Didymus exchanges garments with Theodora in order that she will be able to escape, however each are condemned to loss of life after their ultimate refusal to supply sacrifice to Jupiter and the Emperor.


Bejun Mehta (Didymus) and Christine Schäfer (Theodora) in Christof Loy’s 2009 staging

Thomas Morell’s libretto could not quantity to a lot, however Handel painted its clean canvas with layer on layer of deep harmonic colors and a Rembrandt-like eye and ear for pathos. Theodora is an object instance of ‘late fashion’ from a composer bent upon introspection after a lifetime of satisfying public style. Hence its failure, closing after three performances. Posterity, nonetheless, has belatedly come to share the composer’s personal judgment of Theodora as his masterpiece.

Why ought to Theodora’s fortunes have rotated so dramatically? Firstly, there was the early-music motion within the second half of the final century. This recovered one thing resembling an ‘authentic’ performing fashion for the piece, together with the sorts of devices and voices for which it was written. This made a protracted oratorio like Theodora performable with out drastic surgical procedure.

Secondly, and extra merely, altering tastes. As a part of that revival, Theodora was recorded within the Sixties, and once more in 1991 by that inveterate pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt – each considerably reduce, each preserving the distinctive pathos of the piece at arm’s size. The turning level got here in 1996 with a full staging at Glyndebourne, directed by Peter Sellars and performed by William Christie.

Radical Restagings

Sellars had made his mark in music theatre with radical stagings of Mozart and John Adams, within the fashion of a brand new realism. Noting the relative absence of dramatic pressure from Theodora – its heroine’s destiny is sealed from the outset – he transferred the setting to a contemporary Death Row. The spare, hypnotic nature of stage motion additionally belonged to the American tradition of music theatre that produced Philip Glass’s Einstein On The Beach.

If you could find the Glyndebourne own-label CD manufacturing, or the American-import movie, fortunate you. It grew to become a landmark in trendy Handel performances above all for the singing of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson within the function of Irene, Theodora’s sister. Curiously, Hunt Lieberson had by then recorded the title function in a classy, however erratically forged, US manufacturing led by Nicholas McGegan (nonetheless out there on Harmonia Mundi).

‘I do not know any work that so transcends its libretto’, she remarked. ‘The outward points of language are virtually performed away with and Handel takes you proper to the spirit and feelings of the characters.’ With her early loss of life from most cancers in July 2006, Hunt Lieberson grew to become immortalised not merely as Theodora however Theodora within the wider creativeness.


Caitlin Hulcup (Irene) comforts Valda Wilson (Theodora) in Pinchgut Opera’s 2016 staging directed by Lindy Hume

The lifetime of the piece itself, nonetheless, has flourished since then, and located a pure house on the world’s opera levels moderately than live performance platforms. Handel himself had given up writing opera in 1741 with Deidamia, however his oratorios have been nonetheless carried out in the identical areas, and to the identical audiences, with lots of the similar singers. For instance, the function of Didymus was created on the premiere by the castrato singer Gaetano Guadagni.

Drama Of The Mind’s Eye

Many years in the past I used to be working a CD retailer in Cambridge when a famous Handel authority walked via the door and requested Theodora on CD. I pointed her to the opera part, whereupon she lectured me for my ignorance. I’m wondering how she would take to Christof Loy’s ‘Making Of’ staging for Salzburg. This begins in rehearsal situations, makes the cross-dressing of Theodora and Didymus central with a devastating simplicity, and focuses on the interior lifetime of the music with a hieratic motion shared by Sellars in his staging of the Bach Passions.

More radical nonetheless was Katie Mitchell’s current staging for The Royal Opera, wherein Theodora’s sentence to a type of sexual slavery likewise finds a completely direct trendy equivalence, although the ending has nothing to do with Morell, or Handel. Irene was sung by Joyce DiDonato, who has inherited Hunt Lieberson’s mantle as an embodiment of the work’s tragic pathos, most of all within the rapturous stillness of ‘As with rosy steps’.

There remains to be a spot for Theodora as a drama of the thoughts’s eye moderately than a godless meditation on loss of life/abuse/sacrifice, and as an English oratorio not one million miles from Handel’s earlier achievements within the style. In this regard, Paul McCreesh’s CD recording for DG/Archiv has a lot to supply.


Eternal virtues: the all-round qualities of Paul McCreesh’s DG/Archiv recording make it the perfect model on CD

Arty Accents

Previous recordings of Messiah and (particularly) Solomon established a ‘Gabrieli’ fashion in Handel, mixing color, grandeur and sobriety.The restraint and dignity of Susan Bickley’s Irene makes a refreshing change. Robin Blaze’s Didymus majors on the Aristocracy of phrase moderately than self-pitying heroism.

The many choruses of Theodora, too, make fairly a distinct impact when sung not by the individualistic timbres of opera choruses however by an early-music choir such because the Gabrieli Singers. They make sense of the massive contrapuntal choruses with out recourse to arty accents and assaults.

McCreesh’s sure-handed path establishes a weighty pulse for climactic moments, most of all ‘He noticed the stunning youth’, which ends Act 2. This refrain tells the story of the son of the widow of Nain whom God referred to as again to life. In it we could hear the getting older Handel’s occupation of religion, a occupation in indirect relation to the acknowledged articles of Christianity. He a lot most popular it to ‘Hallelujah’. Perhaps you’ll too.

Essential Recordings

Gabrieli Consort/McCreesh (2000)
DG Archiv (3CDs)
English singers and path adjoining to the ‘oratorio custom’. Theodora as Handel might need heard it, or wished to listen to it.

Il Pomo d’Oro/Emelyanychev (2021)
Erato/Warner Classics 5419717791 (3CDs)
No scarcity of star wattage or studio polish: no longeurs, both, regardless of directorial moments of self-indulgence.

Orchestra of the Antipodes/Helyard (2016)
Pinchgut Opera PG009 (3CDs)
A stay staging from Sydney, overflowing with greasepaint to evoke a staging of the thoughts on CD, pacily directed and vividly sung.

Freiburger Barockorchester/Bolton (2000)
C main 705804 (Blu-ray); 705708 (DVD)
The interior turmoil of the characters uncovered with uncommon perception by Christof Loy in a spare and well-cast Salzburg staging.

Royal Opera House/Bicket (1996)
Opus Arte OABD7313D; OA1368D (Blu-ray; DVD)
DiDonato virtually steals the present in Katie Mitchell’s politically ‘sizzling’, bombs-and-brothels staging for The Royal Opera.

OAE/Christie (1996)
Kultur BD2099 (Blu-ray)
Peter Sellars’s staging for Glyndebourne that revived Theodora as a parable for our time and immortalised Hunt as Irene.

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November 14, 2023 at 07:55PM

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