Review by: Robert Levine
Artistic Quality: 10
Sound Quality: 8
Theodora is an oratorio and not an opera. It is a pious piece, with an unambiguously Christian subject matter. It first appeared in 1750 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden where it was a flop; indeed, it was only performed four times during Handel’s lifetime. The librettist, Thoms Morell, quoted Handel: “The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one.” Perhaps.
The story of the martyrdom of a Christian virgin and a Roman soldier is inherently dramatic, and in 1996 Glyndebourne presented it as an opera from which these CDs are taken (a video has been available for a few years). Director Peter Sellars updated the work to the present and centered it emotionally on the concept of peaceful resistance to a dictatorial, oppression-filled society: in this case, the United States. Valens, the brutal Roman president, is a radical US president, and Sellars has the chorus roar with approval at his ridiculous, prejudiced decrees. This recording therefore contains sounds that are not the opera itself—not just audience approval, but stage actions galore. This should not dissuade you from owning these CDs; this performance is ravishing.
The sheer number of superb arias is remarkable. They begin with Septimius’ lovely “Descend, kind pity”, which defines him as a sympathetic Roman; Theodora’s “Fond, flattering world, adieu” is simplicity itself; Irene’s “As with rosy steps the morn” is one of the most beautiful arias ever penned by anyone. The second part is a string of characterful, unique arias: Valens’ vicious pronouncements (Sellars portrays him as a drunk in this scene); “With darkness deep”, another moment of glorious stillness from Theodora; Septimius’ exciting “Tho’ the honours that Flora”; Didymus’ stunning “Deeds of kindness to display”; Irene’s prayer “Defend her Heav’n”; “Sweet rose”, another gem from Didymus; and a duet for Didymus and Theodora. The third part is just as full of wonders.
Despite two other fine available performances—one led by Nicolas McGegan on Harmonia Mundi (with Lorraine Hunt in the title role) and the other, led, as is this one, by William Christie (Erato)—this Glyndebourne one is the preferred. It has the aura of a truly dramatic occasion and the singing is nothing short of magnificent. The one exception might be the Valens of Frode Olsen, but in context his gruffness is not only acceptable, but apt. David Daniels, in his early prime, is stupendous as Didymus, dispatching the long-lined arias as well as the faster showpieces; Richard Croft is a tenor who can handle the furious coloratura of Septimius with honeyed tone while still remaining in character.
Both women amaze. Dawn Upshaw has always struck me as too much the picture of a thoroughly modern diva—down to earth yet somehow arch and too pleased with herself. I find none of that in her undertaking of the title role. She is the soul of simple piety, never drawing attention to herself, devoid of any affectation, and singing with exquisite accuracy and tone. Vulnerability without fragility. She is bettered only by the lamented Lorraine Hunt. What a sound this woman makes! Irene, a sad priestess, is dignified yet always deeply involved, and Hunt manages to sing with both gravitas and great communicative power at once, never keeping the listener at any distance. And not since Janet Baker has a mezzo had so many levels of piano/pianissimo singing at her command. Every time she sings the air envelops her voice to the exclusion of anything else.
William Christie leads a splendid performance—alive, sharply accented without overstatement, with recitatives vivid and perfectly paced. There are occasional pauses—one assumes that these have to do with stage business—which makes you wonder, but no matter. And, as I said, overlook the audience/stage sounds (Handel himself supposedly “joked” when he was told that the Royal Theatre was half empty, “Never mind; the music will sound the better”) and you are left with one of Handel’s most entrancing works in an unforgettable performance.
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Recording Details:Reference Recording: This one; McGegan (Harmonia Mundi)
- HANDEL, G.F.:Theodora