The aria as a vehicle for considering, contemplating and raking over the character’s current predicament is a feature of many a Handel work. In this respect, Theodora of 1750, which was a flop on its premiere but is now acclaimed as one of his finest oratorios, may not seem unusual. The Christian protagonists, however, are so confident in their faith that, although they face decisions, there is relatively little sense of them actually having a dilemma on their hands.
As a result, many arias do not so much consider what to do as proclaim the importance of virtue and purity, and they often go to extraordinary lengths to indulge in these themes. This consequently requires character portrayals and voices that will engage us at every moment of the ‘meditations’, and that is exactly what this performance from The English Concert gave us.
Tim Mead as Didymus took his countertenor voice of searing purity, and asserted it with great vibrancy so that every trill felt both natural and musically precise. As Valens, Neal Davies brought the same sense of strength to his bass voice, his deep lines revealing thick textures, his persona combining rigid determination with gleeful menace and meanness.
As Theodora, Rosemary Joshua’s radiant voice positively glowed as her skilful shaping of each word gave her utterances maximum emotional impact. Her voice also blended well with Mead’s, lending their duets an ethereal quality. As Irene, Sarah Connolly brought a smooth roundedness to her sound that was then embellished with a range of interesting nuances.
Kurt Streit was pleasing enough as Septimius, but on this occasion his voice did not seem to possess the same strength and resonance as the other four. This, however, may partly have been because he is the one character who is not plumbing the depths of one strongly held conviction (he is sympathetic towards the Christians without being one himself).
Harry Bicket led The English Concert on a tour de force that saw every alteration in tempo embraced to perfection. Even the quickest or most strident passages were played out with graceful technique, while the quietest arias that were accompanied typically by lute, single violin, cello or harpsichord proved particularly beautiful. At every point there was a real sense in which the orchestra was interacting with, rather than merely supporting or accompanying, the soloists. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street also put in a splendid performance, producing a pure and balanced sound, conquering the often complex rhythmic demands, and sharply delineating the various moods and emotions required of them throughout the evening.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.