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Rosemary Joshua [Photo by Ruth Crafer]
09 Feb 2014

Theodora at the Barbican

Harry Bicket and the English Concert brought Handel's wonderful late oratorio Theodora to the Barbican on Saturday 8 February 2014 after a Tour in America and now taking in Birmingham, London and Paris.

Theodora at the Barbican

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Rosemary Joshua [Photo by Ruth Crafer]


Rosemary Joshua sang the title role with Tim Mead as Didymus, Sarah Connolly as Irene, Kurt Streit (replacing Andrew Kennedy) as Septimius and Neal Davies as Valens. The choir was the Choir of Trinity Wall Street on a visit to Europe.

Theodora was in many ways Handel's most unsuccessful oratorio; a small group of admirers liked it but the general public did not. His only sacred oratorio set in Christian times, it used a non-biblical story and is essentially an exploration of inner faith with a heroine who goes off willingly to martyrdom. Handel's concerns in the piece transcend Revd Thomas Morrell's libretto. Time and again he subverts Morrell's underlying meaning, using his music to give Theodora an intensity of faith which overcomes the libretto's combination of piety and masochism, and to make the chorus of Romans into jolly hedonists rather than Morrell's rather vicious crew. This was something that Handel did also in Jephtha, another oratorio with words written by Morrell. Morrell seems to have been a swift and adaptable writer, able to a certain extent to shape himself to Handel's requirements. But also, Handel in his late period seems to have discovered how to work the text to his own inner concerns.

The oratorio has had a more frequent life more recently, partly due to Peter Sellars production at Glyndebourne with a performance of remarkable intensity from Lorraine Hunt as Irene. Despite a certain modishness, Sellers showed that the oratorio's concerns could work for a modern audience. The problem, for any concert performance, is to create that sense of intensity and inner life. Neither of the two female protagonists, Theodora and Irene, has any arias of real action; their musical material is virtually all concerned with faith and a sense of the divine. One of the virtues of the Barbican performance of Theodora was that both Rosemary Joshua (as Theodora) and Sarah Connolly (as Irene) gave a very real sense of intense inner life. You didn't have to believe in God, but my goodness they made you understand that these two women did.

Joshua brought a simplicity and a radiant intensity to the title role which made the character live. Technically the music seemed to hold no challenges, from the opening moments of her first aria Fond flatt'ring World, adieu, you felt she really meant it. Handel helps things along here by the austerity of his orchestration, with unison violins, and in all of Theodora's arias there is a sense of Handel paring the music back in some way. Joshua brought a very fine sense of line to the music; in an aria like Angels' ever bright she combined this with a lovely fragility of tone, supported by just solo strings making the piece feel very intimate.

In the act two prison scene, Handel creates as a sequence of symphonies with flute solo alternating with arias for Theodora. With Darkness deep was both profoundly beautiful and rather touching, whilst O that I on Wings cou'd rise combined superb passagework with a quiet intensity. This, complemented by the gravely beautiful flute solos, gave a sense of Theodora's struggle and journey, making her a rather more human and touching figure. This sense of being rather touching in fact this applied to Joshua's subsequent arias too but you neither felt short changed not restless, as she took us on Theodora's inner journey towards the glorious climax. The final solo number starts out as a solo for Didymus, with Theodora joining him in the second verse (effectively when you expect the da capo). It is a magical musical effect, and one hear given full value by the way Joshua and Tim Mead, as Didymus, combined voices with fine control, balance and a sense of perfect beauty.

The role of Didymus was written for Gaetano Guadagni, the castrato who came to England as part of a two-bit musical troupe and left a fine artist thanks to coaching from Handel (and the odd acting lesson from David Garrick). Didymus was the last part Handel wrote for him (12 years later Guadagni would premiere Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice). It isn't a really showy role, it was clearly written for a singer who liked a plainly expressive line. Tim Mead sang with a lovely centred tone, quite muscular at times. It is easy for Didymus to sound like a wimp, and without any posturing Mead gave us firmness, decisive almost, combined with evenness of tone and moments of great beauty. In his first aria, The raptur'd Soul, Mead showed all these virtues combined with some fluently even passagework. In Kind Heav'n Handel alternates moments of quiet rapture with more active passages, and Mead made the contrast count. He conjured some magical tones for the gentle rapture in the da capo and was suitably decisive in the faster passages. In act two Deeds of Kindness was notable for the sense of long line and beautifully controlled shape, whilst Sweet Rose, and Lily had fine grained tone, touching simplicity and a fabulous violin solo. Handel's first duet for Didymus and Theodora comes in the prison scene towards the end of act 2 and, as with many of Handel's most expressive arias, the ritornello includes a expressive role for the bassoon set free from the bass line. Here Mead and Joshua were perfection itself, combining with control and balance whilst still expressive. Mead gave a sense of fine tone and firmness of purpose combined in his final aria, which led up to the final duet.

The role of Irene is, to a certain extent, a passive one. She fills the position of confidante which is important in many of the oratorios and often allocated to an alto voice (think Micah in Handel's Samson). As such it can easily veer into routine. But Handel takes Morrell's platitudes and makes them live, giving a real sense of Irene's faith; the role is a gift for an expressive singer. Sarah Connolly brought a quiet dignity and intensity of purpose to her singing; like Mead she gave the character a sense of firmness of purpose by musical means. Connolly combines richness of tones with a certain austerity, the purity of her line perhaps; this means that she can be expressive without being voluptuously womanly. Here Irene was all cool dignity and inner fire. This counted in her opening aria Bane of Virtue which musically is surprisingly perky, albeit with a beautifully dignified middle section. Irene's main contribution to act two is the aria Defend her Heavn's to which Connolly gave a lovely sense of shape and line, combining with really fined down tone to make something really profound. Irene opens act three with more dignified passion, and Connolly made it richly toned and expressive, bringing vivid brilliance to the runs in the middle section. Her duet with Joshua, Whither Princess was a lovely contrast of emotions from the two singers (relatively unusual in baroque music where there was a tendency to ensure that both characters had the same affekt). Irene's final aria had a sombre melancholy to it, off set by the profound beauty of Connolly's singing.

Kurt Streit was replacing Andrew Kennedy as Septimius. The role was written for the tenor Thomas Lowe; Lowe we are told had a rather finer voice than the great John Beard, but as an actor was something of a block. As a result, Handel's roles for Lowe tend to be nonentities (Lowe was also the high priest in Solomon), albeit with lovely arias. You wonder what Handel would have made of the drama had Beard been available to sing (as he did in Handel's subsequent oratorio Jephtha when Beard sang the title role). Streit brought a fine technique and a lovely sense of commitment to the role, plus a fabulous feel for the words. All the singers had admirable diction, but Streit seem to go out of his way to use them expressively. though something this veered into over emphasis. Each aria was well done, and it says much for Streit's performance that most of the time he made us forget the role's lack of drama. Part of the problem lies in Morrell's original conception, which had Septimius converting to Christianity; Handel omits this and leaves the role without its central raison d'etre.

Neal Davies was Valens, the Roman Governor that Handel was at pains to paint was being upright in his way, and not too vicious. Davies was suitably vivid and his familiar vibrant way with Handel's passagework worked well here, giving the character life. I particularly liked the way the spat out the words in Racks, Gibbets, Sword and Fire. The character forms a nice counterpoint to the music for the other characters, and Davies clearly relished the contrast and opportunity.

This sense of contrast is embodied in the role of the chorus who play both Romans and Christians. As ever, Handel differentiates them. The Romans are jolly hedonists (what Richard Wigmore in his programme note described as a counterpoint free zone), whilst the Christian choruses are grave, with a well-wrought beauty and included some of Handel's finest work. He himself highly rated He saw the lovely Youth which concludes act two. The choir of Trinity Wall Street numbered some 24 singers and sang with poise and focus, bringing a nice feel for Handel's line and structure. They made a rather low-key start as the Romans, but soon picked up giving the Roman choruses a nice crispness and infectious rhythmic impulse; these Romans were clearly great dancers. By contrast, the Christian choruses were richly textured, with a fine sense of line; perhaps too fine, as I would have liked them to make more of the words. He saw the lovely Youth combined controlled and sombre opening with a crispy vivid second part into something that was intense and profound. The final chorus, was simply magical, both in terms of control and expressiveness; a fitting summation to a very fine performance indeed.

Harry Bicket played the harpsichord, joined on the continuo by theorbo and chamber organ. This had the disadvantage that in the bigger arias, when Bicket conducted, we had a continuo of theorbo and organ which is incorrect. This sort of piece deserves a second harpsichord player so that the organ continuo can be restricted to the choruses and to the other moments when Handel explicitly writes for it. The textual history of Theodora is not uncomplicated and no details of the edition used were given in the programme, which I think is a grave drawback.

The evening was performed, correctly, with two intervals which gave us an early start but meant that Handel's pacing of the work was respected.

Handel uses quite a large orchestra, included trumpets, horns and flute, though these instruments are used sparingly. The English Concert brought a nicely grave tone to the work, giving it some beautiful tone and making Handel's at times austere orchestration count. The moments when we were fined down to continuo and solo instruments were lovely indeed. Bicket controlled everything with a fine sense of speed and pacing. He kept some movements moving, without seeming rushed and gave the whole work a feeling of steady progress. Theodora isn't a short work and the opening act, in particular, can seem rather slow but here we were kept entranced from the opening of the overture.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Theodora: Rosemary Joshua, Irene: Sarah Connolly, Didymus: Tim Mead, Septimius: Kurt Streit, Valens: Neal Davies. Choir of Trinity Wall Street, The English Concert. Conductor: Harry Bicket. 8 February 2014, Barbican Centre, London.

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