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Prom 74: Handel - Theodora, performed by Arcangelo conducted by Jonathan Cohen
10 Sep 2018

Prom 74: Handel's Theodora

“One of the most insufferable prigs in a literature.” Handel scholar Winton Dean’s dismissal of Theodora, the eponymous heroine of Handel’s 1749 oratorio, may well have been shared by many among his contemporary audience.

Prom 74: Handel - Theodora, performed by Arcangelo conducted by Jonathan Cohen

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Louise Alder (Theodora) and Iestyn Davies (Didymus)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

Certainly, connoisseurs among his own circle spoke favourably of the oratorio. The Fourth Earl of Shaftesbury wrote to Handel’s friend James Harris, on 24th March 1750: ‘I have heard [Theodora] three times, and venture to pronounce it, as finished, beautiful and labour’d a composition, as ever Handel made.’ But, he added, ‘The Town don’t like it at all’. [1] It was one of Handel’s biggest flops. The first performance on 16 th March 1750, at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, was followed by only two further performances that season (audiences were so poor that Handel undertook radical revisions), and one further single-performance revival in 1755.

The libretto by Thomas Morell takes us to 4th-century Antioch, where the Roman governor, Valens, has proclaimed that in celebration of the Emperor birthday all citizens must make sacrifice to Jove and join in a feast to the Emperor’s honour. In facing the threat of death for her refusal to abide by Valens’ decree, the Christian princess Theodora displays religious fidelity, personal integrity and steadfast bravery which are equalled by the Roman soldier Didymus who, loving Theodora, pleads for clemency and then attempts to save her by sacrificing himself in her place.

Why did this composition by the man who during the 1730s and ‘40s had single-handedly developed the unique form of the English oratorio, combining elements from Italian opera seria, English anthems and other forms, which such public and financial success, fall so flat on public ears? Various reasons have been proposed: the preachy moralising and solipsistic self-righteousness of the one-dimensional characters, the lack of ‘action’, the unfashionably tragic ending. With regard to the latter, Ruth Smith (in ‘Comprehending Theodora [2] ) observes that Handel chose not to set Morell’s conclusion, in which the courage of Theodora and Didymus during their execution resulted in the conversion of Septimius and a thousand Roman onlookers. We can only speculate why Handel rejected this ending (and also the ‘hallelujah’ which Morell supplied as a replacement) but the librettist’s original conclusion would have supplied some invigorating uplift; and, would have overcome the aloof detachment which seems to perfume the noble-born Theodora, whose Christian devotion is not used in service of her people.

That said, while Handel was later reported by Morell to have wryly commented that the Jews would not come because it was a Christian story, and the ladies would not come because it was a virtuous one, there would seem to have been much for Handel’s audiences to admire and enjoy in Theodora: bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of persecution, the loving constancy of youthful devotion, unwavering acceptance of and submission to the will of God - after all, one would expect them to have shared Theodora’s confidence in the blessings of heavenly after-life.

There is certainly no lack of potential for drama here. Though Theodora eschews heroic spectacle and grandeur, Handel’s other two late oratorios, Susanna and Jephtha, similarly place human drama centre-stage; and the conflict between human love and spiritual devotion surely invites the sort of vigorous emotional energies that Peter Sellars generated at Glyndebourne in 1996 when he put Theodora on the operatic stage, focusing on the rousing power of Theodora’s religious fervour.

There were, however, few stirring emotional heights or peaks of dramatic intensity in this performance of Theodora in the penultimate performance of this year’s BBC Proms season by Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo. There was music-making of exquisitely beautiful poise and sensitivity, and Cohen directed his singers and musicians in a performance of utmost care and conviction, fashioning effectively broad canvases. He established a mood of apt solemnity, but the stylish playing of his 38 instrumentalists did not lack rhythmic buoyancy or crispness of articulation. Handel claimed that ‘He saw the lovely youth’ was the best chorus he ever wrote, and the 36-strong chorus gave no cause to dispute this, though it was perhaps a ‘polite’ rather than rendition fired with revolution. The female voices frequently provided radiance and freshness; muscular strength and vigour came from the men; the diction of all was excellent. The homophonic blend in ‘Go, gen’rous, pious youth’ warmed the heart.

There was, however, a lack of emotional variety: though there were moments of expressive intensity, serenity was the dominant mode. Even though the syncopations had a lively spring, the Romans’ orgy at the start of Part 2 was a tasteful homage to Caesar rather than a hedonistic knees-up. Perhaps the Royal Albert Hall is simply too large a venue to communicate a sufficiently realistic human drama to overcome the characters’ tendency towards poised detachment.

The singing of the cast of five soloists could scarcely be faulted. In the title role, Louise Alder tackled the task of embodying a Christian martyr to match that of Handel’s other Gospel-derived oratorio with characteristic composure and vocal sweetness. She captured Theodora’s true nobility from her first Air, ‘Fond, flatt’ring world, adieu!’, accompanied by lovely smooth strings, and occasional flared with frissons of passion, as expressed by the decorative ornaments which adorned the da capo repeat of ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’, here expressing the ecstatic consolations of faith as she was led to prison. Theodora’s double-scene aria from her prison cell, which closed the first part of the performance, sank low in long mellifluous lines of unwavering devotion and glowed with colour at the top, injecting the sort of dramatic elevation that Handel often uses a closing choral number to provide. But, the very beauty of her singing seemed to carry Alder’s Theodora into heavenly realms and weaken our ability to feel and share her human dilemmas.

Alder’s two duets with Iestyn Davies’ Didymus - a role written by Handel for Guagagni - were a highlight. In his Airs, Davies projected into the large arena with apparent effortless, and never at the expense of grace of phrasing or purity of tone. ‘Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care’ in which the conflicted Roman calls upon God to fire him with courage to save the captive Theodora, was animated and agile, the wide range easily encompassed. But, at the final reckoning - while Didymus’s sombre piety (‘Or lull’d with grief’ as a treat) was not in doubt - I hadn’t quite been convinced of Didymus’s inner schism between soldierly duty and personal desire.

Handel gives Septimius some lovely music to sing, and the lovely tone of Benjamin Hulett made a strong impression, especially in his Part 1 Recitative and Air, ‘I know thy virtues … Descend, kind pity’. The high lines seemed to present no difficulty, although elsewhere Hulett’s tenor did not always carry with sufficient strength. Projection was also a problem, at least initially, for bass Tareq Nazmi, whose Valens rather lacked focus and presence in Part 1, though the characterisation of the later recitatives was more strongly shaped. Irene, Theodora’s friend and fellow Christian, can - as the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson showed in Sellars’ production - become the emotional core of the drama, but here Ann Hallenberg’s elegant singing was too charming and emotionally disengaged from the text and context to convince me of the sincerity and depth of her love for her friend. ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ was charmingly sung, but Hallenberg might have been singing about the coming of springtime, rather than stirring her fellow Christians to forbearance in the face of religious persecution.

On this occasion, Cohen and his musicians made a superb case for the musical magnificence of Handel’s Theodora but the oratorio’s dramatic energies and emotional relevance were sadly absent.

Claire Seymour

Prom 74: Handel - Theodora

Valens, President of Antioch - Tareq Nazmi (bass), Didymus, a Roman Officer - Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Septimius, a Roman Officer - Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Theodora, a Christian - Louise Alder (soprano), Irene, a Christian - Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano); conductor - Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Friday 7th September 2018.



[1] Quoted in Music and Theatre in Handel’s World: The Family Papers of James Harris , ed. Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] Eighteenth Century Music 2/1 (2005): 57-90.

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