17 Jun 2007

HANDEL: Theodora

Theodora, oratorio in three acts (HWV 68).

Music composed by G. F. Handel. Libretto by Thomas Morrell after Robert Boyle’s The Matyrdom of Theodora and Didymus (1687).

First Performance: 16 March 1750, Covent Garden Theatre, London

Principal Characters:
Theodora Soprano
Irene Mezzo-Soprano
Didymus Alto
Septimius Tenor
Valens Bass


Act I is made of two great, contrasting scenes. The sense of Roman authority and festivity is set by Valens’ two arias, each followed by a chorus. Especially remarkable is the second chorus, “For ever thus stands fixed the doom,” for Handel deliberately ignores the violence suggested by the words, and writes a tenderly beautiful “siciliana” reminiscent of the Messiah “Pastoral Symphony.” This leads to airs by Didymus and Septimius whose lively rhythms (Didymus is not yet revealed as a Christian) keep up the Roman character of the scene. In strong contrast is the second scene, which presents the Christians with music of serenity, rapture and faith. Beginning with a recitative and beautiful aria by Theodora and continuing through a gentle chorus, the mood is not broken by the Messenger announcing the Roman threats, but is renewed by Irene’s great aria, “As with rosy steps the morn.” Here Handel sensitively weaves the “steps” into the rhythm, and evokes a splendid “sunrise”. The livelier chorus continues the mood of exalted faith, which is not disrupted by Septimius’ entrance to take Theodora to prison. The mood is carried to still a new level by Theodora’s famous “Angels, ever bright and fair.” When Didymus enters to find Theodora gone, his aria, “Kind Heaven,” continues the Christian spirit, and this is grandly rounded out by the chorus, “Go, gen’rous, pious youth.”

Act II is more intensely dramatic, proceeding through six contrasting scenes. Winton Dean writes that it “claims to rank as the finest single act in any of the oratorios.” The pagan festival in the first scene, worshiping not only Jove but also “Fair Flora and Venus,” has a lovely sensuous lightness, climaxed in the sparkling “laughing” chorus. All the more profoundly moving then, is the tragic feeling of the following scene. Theodora’s inexpressibly poignant F sharp minor air, “With darkness deep,” is framed by a somber “tone poem,” for violins and deliberately shrill flutes, at first in G minor and then returning, extended, in E minor. Theodora’s self-questioning is resolved in het next air, with Handel beautifully illustrating “Oh that I on wings could rise.” Notable in the following scene, as Didymus wins the sympathy of Septimius, is the way the latter’s air, explaining that Venus would not approve such punishment, adroitly recalls in style the earlier “Venus laughing” chorus. The character of Irene broadens in the next scene with her moving recitative and Larghetto e piano air, “Defend her, Heaven.” Starting with Didymus’ “Sweet rose and lily,” sung over the sleeping Theodora, and culminating in the great extended duet and following chorus, inspiration follows on inspiration. The act ends with Irene and the Christians, and the great resurrection chorus, “He saw the lovely youth” (alluded to above as Handel’s favorite). Lang calls this chorus, “perhaps the absolute summit of Handel’s choral art.” As a remarkable example of the unity Handel achieves, this act ends with its beginning, in a manner of speaking. The Largo opening of this chorus recalls the Sinfonia with which the act had opened. It moves from minor to major, and then breaks into a grand “resurrection” fugue. The text reference is from the Gospel of St. Luke, when Christ resurrects the son of the widow of Nain.

Act III proceeds from a sense of hope and relief. It seems to the Christians that Didymus’ plan worked. But the mood changes through Theodora’s dramatic determination to give herself up and through the court scene, where Valens rejects both Septimius’ gentle plea “From virtue springs each generous deed, and the martyrs’ hope that each can save the other. The culmination is the gentle, beautiful air of Didymus, “Streams of pleasure ever flowing,” which becomes a duet with Theodora. This tender peacefulness, an embrace and conquest of tragedy, reaches its apotheosis in the final chorus of Christians, “O love divine.” Dean calls it “a prayer of the living that they may be worthy of the dead.”

[Synopsis adapted from notes by S.W. Bennett]

Click here for the complete libretto.