Glyndebourne Touring Opera @ Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 27 November 2003
The brave Christian noblewoman Theodora is arrested and thrown into prison because she refuses to honour the Emperor, and threatened with a fate worse than death - as a sex-worker for the President Valens' Royal Guard - unless she worships the Roman gods.
Disgusted by this punishment, a Roman officer Septimius allows his friend Didymus, a Christian, to visit her and help her to escape. Outraged, Valens condemns Didymus to death and Theodora willingly joins him in martyrdom. Four hours in a nutshell.
Claire Whistler has revived the 1996 Peter Sellars production that earned acclaim, generated excitement and cemented his reputation as a modernising innovator.
Sellars' dramatic presentation as opera, rather than the oratorio form Handel chose for economic reasons 250 years before, is a transposition of 4th century persecution of Christians by the authorities of the Roman Empire to a drama of modern persecution of the minority, any minority, by a hegemony - in this case American.
In 1996 it was the perception of anti-Americanism - soldiers in military jump suits, a "President" requiring performance-enhancing drugs to complete a press conference, execution by lethal injection, and the rest - which caused a furore. Seven years later the power that actually remains lies in the elements on which Handel chose to concentrate with the oratorio form: ambitious interludes for the chorus and direct communicative power that is unleashed in the music. And what music it is.
The transposition is almost completely successful but not without drawbacks. Certainly both the fanatical beliefs of the Christians and their ruthless suppression have easily recognised modern parallels. What this work does is explore the self-doubts that lie beneath the exterior on both sides. However, like other works of its time featuring the counter tenor and higher ranges of the male voice, their unfamiliarity to modern ears stretches the credibility required by the audience. Audio doesn't match visual, and the imagination has to work hard at the beginning to overcome the problem that ambiguity causes.
Not that the performers don't work hard. Christine Rice's Irene - the Christians' leader - was inspiring and seemed to dominate the stage with effortless serenity whenever she appeared.
Anne-Lise Solleid's Theodora captures the heart of the devotional struggle that Handel portrayed, the confrontation of human fears with trusting spiritual faith which brings freedom. In her Act II aria Oh, that I on wings could fly her actions express the words perfectly as she cups a mimed bird in her hands, releasing it skywards and following its spiralling flight aloft.
Stephen Wallace's Didymus presents the character's hesitating gaucheness until he too receives the strength of faith. He sings Handel's baroque ornamentation with complete mastery of technique and any suspension of belief caused by the tessatura is dispelled by his Act II duet with Theodora To thee. He is ably supported by Paul Nilon's Septimius. Henry Waddington sings the role of Valens with swaggering gusto and authority.
Matching - if not surpassing - the main players are the members of The Glyndebourne Chorus who were, quite simply, superb. The symbolic hand gestures and mime that Sellars gives them choreograph the music in rippling sequences, creating a hypnotic yet natural rhythm - like waves on a beach or a breeze eddying through leaves. It was unforgettable.
Set design by George Tyspin and lighting revived by Keith Benson provide elegant simplicity which works on many levels. Cracked glass amphorae represent the broken vessels of the human soul portrayed in the story, their very transparency enabling us to see the struggle within. Their updated glass equivalents appear in the final Act and contain the execution drug cocktail. Masterly use of unadorned space, light and shadows contrast and counterpoint the complexity of the music.
Emmanuelle Haim conducted expansively yet with rhythmic precision, the orchestra providing a perfect resonant foundation for an inspired - and inspiring - evening.