Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Theodora review: The importance of being earnest

29 March 2023

An evening of earnest piety at the Barbican.


Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen & soloists (Photo: Mark Allan)

Handel himself wasn’t convinced of the drawing qualities of his oratorio Theodora, remarking in an un-woke aside that it was too Christian for Jewish audience members and too virtuous to interest ladies; it seems concertgoers in 1750 agreed with him, as it closed after three performances. Recent revivals (including last year’s highly acclaimed staging of the oratorio at Covent Garden and a five-star performance at The Northern Aldborough Festival) seem to have rehabilitated it as ‘a work of genius’, but some of us remain unconvinced. Certainly, there’s some good writing here, and pretty much every aria, duet and chorus would be enjoyable if taken alone. Nobody really loves a saint, though: they’re fine in the abstract, but Theodora’s main characters (the devout lovers Theodora and Didymus) outline what dreary and stubborn piety can be like first hand, and Handel’s response to the story – a hefty dose of slow, emollient numbers (even the choruses, for the most part, are packed with intense ponderous counterpoint) – when heard as a whole makes for a yawn-inducing evening.

The oratorio is sometimes compared to Bach’s Passion settings, but, really, this doesn’t hold water: Bach (at least in these instances) is the better tunesmith, and, most importantly, many of his arias involve obbligato instruments that provide variety in timbre; for Theodora, Handel deploys the same instrumental forces for pretty much everything outside the recitative, and although there are subtle variations in ensemble, it remains texturally homogenous (mostly strings with a background of woodwind). It’s arguable that the Covent Garden production was the right way to go with it – adding costumes, scenery and action providing enough interest to prevent the ennui setting in.

There is some surcease from the uniformity. The Governor, Valens, who is a jobsworth, rather than a villain, has some more fast-paced material; there are a couple of brief martial numbers involving trumpets at the beginning, and the choruses that portray the licentiousness of the temple of Venus have some spritz about them – including, a ‘horny’ (literally: there are two of them) orgy chorus.

All of these downsides were present at Wednesday evening’s ‘straight’ performance of the oratorio, but were – at least to some extent – ameliorated by the brilliant performances of all involved.

“…nobody really loves a saint…”

Jonathan Cohen directed Arcangelo with intelligence and verve, producing a sound that brought out Handel’s subtleties of instrumentation as much as was possible – the sensitive use of different continuo instruments, for example, did much to modify the timbre and mood – and together they pulled out enough shifts in dynamic and tempo to add a modicum of dramatic interest.

The chorus was perfectly balanced and blended, and responded to their roles (libertine Heathens or drearily untainted Christians) by deploying appropriate tone; they managed the occasional punchy moments in their material well – the second part of ‘All Pow’r in Heav’n above’, for example, or the splendidly percussive ‘snatch’d’ in ‘He saw the lovely Youth’.

The soloists were uniformly excellent. Louise Alder took the title role, her sweet piano tones taking on more colour as the dynamic increased. Her deliveries of ‘Angels, ever bright’ and ‘With Darkness deep’ were delicious, and contrasted well with the slightly busier ‘O that I on Wings could rise’. Tim Mead’s countertenor voice was perfect for the role of Didymus – maintaining its beautifully modulated tone across the range, to give recording-quality accounts of ‘Kind Heav’n’ and ‘Sweet Rose & Lily’ (whose final lingered appoggiatura provided just the right amount of expansiveness). Their duets together demonstrated the perfect match of voices, and their handling of the suspensions in ‘To thee, Thou glorious Son of Worth’ was elegant.

Adam Plachetka brought a good portion of no-nonsense sonority and edge to the sprightly material Valens is given, and Anna Stéphany’s lush mezzo tones brought richness to Irene’s sanctimony (‘Whither, Princess’, her peevish duet with Theodora, providing a bit of a highlight).

Stuart Jackson inhabited the role of Septimius – Didymus’s reluctant senior officer – with élan, deploying stance and gesture to augment his clear, light tenor (with some welly when needed).

All in all, some first-rate performances, but one was glad when the drippy Theodora and Didymus finally reached the heavenly destination they’d been falling over each other to achieve.

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