An overdue and most welcome return delivers a sucker punch of intensity
One might wonder why we’ve had to wait just over 270 years for Handel’s Theodora to return to Covent Garden. But return it has, in a spellbindingly original, emotionally shattering staging by Katie Mitchell, which is also superbly sung, played, and conducted. The wait was long – but worth it. Indeed it’s a while since an opera production has delivered a sucker punch of such intensity, leaving us reeling at the final curtain, drained, yet uplifted in equal measure.
Mitchell is one of those Marmite directors who divides audiences – there’s no sitting on the fence when it comes to critiquing her work. Her visual aesthetic and meticulous personenregie seem to delight and repel in equal measure, and while we’ve been impressed with many of her productions, it’s fair to say she’s done nothing finer than this Theodora.
Of course, Handel never wrote it with a staged performance in mind. Theodora is an oratorio, but as we know from Peter Sellars’ ground-breaking staging at Glyndebourne in the mid ‘90s, its potent themes of devotion, religion and sacrifice are as relevant now as they were in 1750 and translate well to the stage.
Mitchell’s view of the piece is even more interventionist than Sellars’ was. Set in the modern day, in a Roman Embassy, Chloe Lamford’s meticulously detailed boxed set features four rooms, which glided seamlessly into view depending upon where the action took place – an industrial kitchen, a drab function room, a walk-in freezer and a pole dancing club. Valens, the President of Antioch, is reimagined as the Roman Ambassador. Theodora and Irene are cleaners, but as committed Christians are looking to bring down the Roman order as they refuse to worship Roman gods, while Didymus (Theodora’s lover) and Septimius are members of the ambassador’s security detail.
Whilst there may be passing niggles about the liberties Mitchell takes with the original story, by turning the notion that Theodora is a passive character on its head, and giving her agency, allows us to view the story through a feminist lens – and the gains far outweigh the losses. The Roman punishment meted out to Christians who fail to worship Roman gods is execution, but as the accused, Theodora, is a woman, she is forced into sex slavery. In Mitchell’s audacious updating, this is key as she shines a light on the many instances of misogyny that are writ large throughout the work. Here, Theodora’s simple clothes are exchanged for a silver lamé dress, high heels, and blonde wig as she’s forced to suffer the ultimate humiliation.
“…a spellbindingly original, emotionally shattering staging…”
Her lover, Didymus, comes to her rescue, and in a stroke of theatrical brilliance when they swap outfits, he suddenly becomes the sex object. Far from being an hilarious drag act, it affords him the lived-in experience of what it’s like for a woman to be in this position, allowing him to empathise with Theodora’s plight. With liberal use of her trademark use of slo-mo action to create an almost filmic, other-worldly feel to proceedings, Mitchell tells the story coherently, and not surprisingly changes the ending, which is dispatched with consummate skill. It’s a bit of a shocker, but in keeping with everything that’s gone before.
Mitchell also demands, and gets, unflinchingly honest performances from the cast – and what a cast this is! In the title role Julia Bullock makes an auspicious role and house debut – and it’s quite hard to believe this is the first time she’s sung a major Handel role. From her opening aria, ‘Fond, flatt’ring world adieu’, sung with limpid tone, and heart-searching sincerity, she gave notice of a faultless technique and the ability to deploy a wide range of vocal colours. Imprisoned, she inflected ‘With darkness sleep’, with uncommon tenderness, while the final duet with Didymus, ‘Streams of pleasure ever flowing’, found her at her most beguiling.
Another house debutante, Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, was nothing short of a sensation. With a gloriously rich tone throughout his formidable range, he was the Didymus of one’s dreams. He captivated the audience with his first aria, ‘The raptur’d soul’, and went on to sing faultlessly for the rest of the evening, excelling in a virtuoso account of ‘Deeds of kindness to display’. As his friend, Ed Lyon brought a wealth of Handelian experience to the role of Septimius. His relatively light, bright tenor voice coped easily with the florid passagework of ‘Dread the fruits of Christian folly’, while he brought a sense of authority to ‘Though the honours’. He also captured the character’s sense of divided loyalty to perfection, capping an assured performance with a perfectly poised ‘From virtue springs each gen’rous deed’.
Joyce DiDonato is a performer who never fails to give her all. She’s made many notable appearances at Covent Garden, but none quite as affecting as Irene. Handel gives her five equally demanding arias, each requiring the singer to delve deeper into their inner soul, and DiDonato excelled in each. From an impassioned ‘Bane of virtue’ to a hushed, introspective ‘As with rosy steps’, where time stood still, she was unflinching in her emotion, faultless in her technique, and overwhelming with her sincerity. And hand on heart we can’t recall a finer sung Handel aria than her account of ‘Lord, to Thee each night and day’. She’s sung the role many times before, and is a worthy successor to the late, great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
As Valens, Gyula Orendt thundered effectively, while Thando Mjandana made his mark as Marcus. In the pit Harry Bicket led a propulsive, period-style performance and was rewarded with spirited playing, while the chorus sang with eloquence.
All the singers and the production team were cheered to the echo. Indeed we’d have to go back a long way to recall such an ecstatic first night audience – and every bravo was well deserved, as there can be no doubt The Royal Opera has a massive success on its hands. Unmissable.
• Further details of this production can be found here.