Drama, onstage and off, marks the beginning of an enterprising festival.
Those of us fortunate enough to have been present at the 1996 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Theodora may remember it mainly as our first ‘live’ experience not only of the wonderful music but the singing of David Daniels and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Didymus and Irene respectively. One might imagine that a semi-staged version in the ancient St Andrew’s Church 26 years later would necessarily prove a disappointment – but this was not the case. Despite having taken over from an indisposed Lawrence Zazzo at very short notice, William Towers was sensational in the challenging countertenor role, and despite not having years of experience, Helen Charlston’s Irene was a moving portrayal.
The Northern Aldborough Festival, set in the idyllic surroundings of one of North Yorkshire’s most bucolic villages, has ambitions beyond its size, and this opening production lives up to them. Staged by Joe Austin, very simply yet with an unmistakable sense of authenticity, there was not one weak link in the whole performance. The specialist baroque band ‘Sounds Baroque’ led by Julian Perkins, initiated the action in confident style, and never flagged in the authority of its playing, with especially fine work from the horns (Peter McNeill, Nivanthi Karunaratne) and the theorbo (Kristiina Watt). When a member of the audience became ill, necessitating a curtailment of the second part, the conductor’s management of the sudden changes, and the players’ response to the situation, were amazing to behold. As for the singers, how they coped with those changes was a remarkable example of teamwork.
That so distinguished a cast can be assembled for such a small-scale festival is a tribute to the organization, and it was a shame that there were no critics from the dead-tree press present to experience singing of such intensity and power. Henry Waddington is well known for his many operatic roles, his Glyndebourne Saul being especially memorable, and here he was a convincingly populist Valens, his genuine Handel bass making light work of the complex music. The tenor Benjamin Hulett’s clarion tone is ideal for the role of the conflicted Septimius, and his scenes with Didymus were especially finely done. Edwin Lambert’s Messenger was a casualty of the truncation, but his brief lines in Act I were sufficient to show promise.
“…there was not one weak link in the whole performance”
‘The raptur’d soul defies the sword’ is one of Handel’s most beautiful arias for countertenor, and William Towers sang it with virtuosic fluency and richness of tone. ‘Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care’ was similarly impressive, and his scenes with Theodora were heart-wrenchingly moving. Fflur Wyn shares with her colleagues a notable record of Handelian experience, and her Theodora was strongly characterized as well as being beautifully sung. Their final farewell melted sight.
Irene is a role strongly associated with the much missed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, but Helen Charlston took up the challenge and made it her own. Her tone is a shade harder than that of her predecessor, but she made effective use of this to portray a zealous companion. Both ‘As with rosy steps’ and ‘Lord, to Thee each night and day’ held the audience spellbound.
The York University Singers are a young, enthusiastic group whose small numbers belie their professional sound; the closing chorales of each half were splendidly sung, and their voices, whilst being highly impressive individually, blended together to produce ideal harmony.
This performance built upon the strengths of the Festival’s 2019 Semele, and is the precursor to the planned 2024 fully staged Theodora. Perhaps it’s not too much to hope that a few more critics might make the long trek oop North for what is sure to be a momentous occasion.
• Further details of The Northern Aldborough Festival can be found here.