Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May I594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):