Handel: Theodora (3CD)

Pinchgut
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PG009
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Pinchgut Opera

Valda Wilson Theodora
Caitlin Hulcup Irene
Christopher Lowrey Didymus
Ed Lyon Septimius
Andrew Collis Valens

Cantillation Chorus
Orchestra of the Antipodes

Erin Helyard conductor
Lindy Hume director
Dan Potra designer
Matthew Marshall lighting designer
Sally Blackwood assistant director
Keiren Brandt-Sawdy assistant conductor

Handel's second last oratorio and favourite work, Theodora has come to be recognised in the last twenty years as Handel's masterpiece. A succession of the most beautiful arias and choruses, Theodora is a profoundly moving experience.

Theodora is a tale from ancient Rome that speaks to our hearts, here and now. Innocence, love, faith and courage bloom strong and full of promise, only to be struck down by blind hatred and the thirst for power.

HANDEL AND THEODORA

Handel was still showing remarkable creative abilitites when he completed Theodora in his 65th year. This would prove to be his penultimate major work, and it would be a further two years before he produced his final great oratorio, Jephtha.

The omens for Theodora were not good. A week before the first performance on 16th March 1750 London experienced an unprecendented earthquake. Eighty years after the event a witness decribed what had occurred:

'On the 8th of March, 1750, an earthquake shook London. The shock was at half past five in the morning. It awoke people from their sleep and frightened them out of their houses. A servant maid in Charterhouse-square, was thrown from her bed, and had her arm broken; bells in several steeples were struck by the chime hammers; great stones were thrown from the new spire of Westminster Abbey; dogs howled in uncommon tones; and fish jumped half a yard above the water.'

Many people fled London in panic, and were still absent when Handel opened his season a few days later. This would account in part for the small attendance at the three performances given of Theodora that season.

Handel was also concerned about the audience the Christian story with a tragic ending could attract. When told that one of his supporters wanted to buy all the boxes for a particular performance, Handel was heard to comment: 'He is a fool; the Jews will not come to it (as to Judas) because it is a Christian story; and the Ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one’. London's Jewish community had welcomed Handel's 1747 oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, which he had written in celebration of the Duke of Cumberland's victory over the Jacobites at Culloden, and which was also based on a libretto by Thomas Morell.

Handel was disappointed by the poor reception given to Theodora. When asked by some musicians for free tickets for a performance of Messiah, Handel's response (recorded by Charles Burney) gives an indication of his bitter feelings: 'Oh your servant, meine Herren! you are damnable dainty! you would not go to Theodora - there was room enough to dance there, when that was perform'.

The first cast of Theodora included the alto-castrato Gaetano Guadagni, for whom Handel wrote the role of Didymus. It was unusual for Handel to include a castrato voice in his English oratorios, but Guadagni had already appeared with great success in performances of Messiah and Samson, for which Handel had adapted the roles originally sung by Susannah Cibber. In 1762 Guadagni would create the title role in Gluck's Orfeo in Vienna.

Some years after Handel's death, Morell remembered working with him on a number of oratorios. He had a particular memory of Theodora:

'The next I wrote was 'Theodora' (in 1749), which Mr. Handell himself valued more than any Performance of the kind; and when I once ask'd him, whether he did not look upon the Grand Chorus in the Messiah as his Master Piece? "No", says he, "I think the Chorus at the end of the 2nd part in Theodora far beyond it. He saw the lovely youth" '.

Despite his affection for the work, Handel never revived Theodora.

THE STORY

The scene is set in 4th century Antioch, which is occupied by the Roman army.

Act 1
Valens, the Roman governor, proclaims that in celebration of the Emperor birthday all cititzens must make sacrifice to Jove and join in a feast to the Emperor's honour. Those who refuse to participate will be punished or executed. He charges Septimius with carrying out his orders. Didymus, a Roman soldier, asks that those whose conscience forbids them from particpating be protected from punishment.

But Valens is unbending and questions the soldier's loyalty to Rome. Didymus turns now to Septimius with the same argument. Septimius suspects that Didymus is secretly a Christian, and admits that he too would prefer to show mercy to those who refuse to celebrate. However, he is a loyal Roman and will carry out his orders.

In the Christian community, Theodora and Irene are praying. A messenger arrives and warns them of Valens's commands. But Irene leads the community in a reaffirmation of their faith. Septimius arrives and warns them of the punishment they face - a punishment Theodora is happy to embrace. However, rather than have her executed Septimius takes her away to a brothel where she will be prostituted to the Roman soldiers.

Didymus arrives too late to save her, and sets out to release her. The chorus pray to heaven for his success.

Act II

The Romans proceed with their celebrations. Valens sends Septimius to Theodora with an offer of clemency if she makes a sacrifice before sunset.

In her prison cell, Theodora waits fearfully for her fate. But contemplation of the heaven that awaits her after death cheers her spirits. Didymus persuades Septimius to let him enter Theodora's cell and rescue her, as Irene prays that God will protect Theodora.

Didymus enters the cell and finds Theodora asleep. She wakes with a start fearing the worse, but Didymus reveals his identity and calms her. She begs him to kill her but he cannot. Instead he dresses her in his uniform and, disguised as a soldier, Theodora escapes the cell leaving Didymus in her place.

The Christians maintian a vigil, led by Irene.

Act III

Still praying for Theodora's release, Irene is surprised to see her companion arrive dressed in Didymus's clothes. The Christians celebrate her safe return, though Theodora herself is concerned for the safety of Didymus.

A messenger arrives to tell them that Didymus has been sentenced to death, and that Theodora is now too condemned to die if she is caught. Despite Irene's efforts to restrain her, Theodora rushes to the Roman court to offer herself in place of Didymus.

Valens condemns Didymus to death as Theodora arrives to save him. Both offer to die in place of the other, but Valens will not let them bargain with their own fates and sends both of them to execution. As they blissfully enter immortality together the Christian community join in a hymn of praise.

THE MUSIC

Theodora begins with an ‘Ouverture’ in the French style in G minor and ends with a chorus in the same key, which is associated throughout the work with the Christians and Theodora herself, as is the restrained scoring for oboes and strings (with telling use of a solo flute in Theodora’s prison scene).

In the music for the Romans, however, Handel adds the extra colours of trumpets, drums and horns, echoing his characterisation of ‘heathens’ in other oratorios, as more hedonistic than vicious. As is often the case, he sometimes makes use of pre-existing musical material by other composers, but invariably transforms it in subtle and inventive ways. Several numbers in Theodora are based on themes from the vocal duets of the Pisan composer Giovanni Carlo Maria Clari (1677–1754). Their abnormal intervals or combinations of rhythmically diverse fragments helped Handel to generate unconventional musical textures, especially useful for suggesting the other-worldly outlook of the alienated Christian community. A theme by Clari is also the basis of the most remarkable of the Roman choruses, ‘How strange their ends’, where the Romans express their bafflement at the willingness of Theodora and Didymus to die for each other.

The most famous aria in Theodora is probably ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’, Theodora’s radiant prayer to be spared the threat of rape and to enter Heaven as a virgin, but many arias of great tenderness are to be found in the oratorio, especially in the mezzo-soprano role of Irene, whose ‘As with rosy steps the morn advancing’ has become almost equally well-known. The arias of both Didymus and Septimius share this quality, though the latter, as befits a Roman officer, has one vigorous number (‘Dread the fruits of Christian folly’). Handel makes a clear contrast between their numbers and the combination of military swagger and menace in Valens’s music. Each of the three parts ends with a chorus of exceptional beauty. Handel himself is said to have had special affection for the one concluding Part 2 (‘He saw the lovely youth’). When asked if he regarded the Hallelujah Chorus of Messiah as his masterpiece, he replied (according to the letter of Morell mentioned above): ‘No ... I think the Chorus at the end of the 2nd part in Theodora far beyond it’.

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Reviews:

"It is difficult to know what to commend most strongly – the ravishing beauty of Valda Wilson and Christopher Lowrey's duets (Theodora and Didymus), the thrilling choral singing in Handel's superbly scaffolded counterpoint, the glowing smoothness of contralto Caitlin Hulcup, or simply the quality of the score that the composer thought his best.

Handel wrote Theodora as a dramatic oratorio rather than an opera, but by the late Baroque the distinction was sometimes blurred.

Lindy Hume's restrained production, reflectively lit by Matthew Marshall, using Dan Potra's modern dress with a hint of mythical overlay, creates a reserved, solemn, dramatic space where the emphasis on representations of piety naturally focuses attention back on the music at the spiritual centre (it is strangely akin to Wagner's Parsifal in this respect).

Countertenor Christopher Lowrey animates a natural sense of line with elegantly stylish ornamentation, energised at times with sinewy agility without losing smoothness. Soprano Valda Wilson has wonderful rose colours and freshness in her sound and a capacity to open out richly without forcing the tone. When they sang together a delicate astringency and sweet iridescence was added to create a blend that was both sensuous and serene.

Contralto Caitlin Hulcup as Irene, leader of the persecuted Christians, sings with a sound of rounded firmness, fluid mellifluousness and natural attractiveness. As the Roman officer Septimus, constrained from confronting tyranny by a false sense of duty, Ed Lyon has a lean and agile tone with versatile range and attractive upper timbres. Andrew Collis, as the unpredictable and bullying tyrant Valens, sang with a looser grain that didn't undermine the underlying firmness.

The story of unctuous Christian martyrs amid drunken Roman orgies could become insufferable and test one's loyalties were it not for the fact that in this case the angels not only get the best tunes but also some of Handel's finest choruses.

One rarely hears them in such a tapestry of magnificence, created here by the choral ensemble Cantillation. The colours were not limited to the voices, however, and shaded oboe and flute and robustly open horn timbres created highlights to a balanced foundation from the Orchestra of the Antipodes.

Conductor Erin Helyard led with insistently energised, flexibly elastic tempos and in some of the cadenzas time suspended itself for a moment so that truth and beauty could merge.

Of all the Pinchgut productions to date, this was the most rewarding for its restrained, purposeful drama and seraphic musical refinement."

- Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald (December 1, 2016)

"Handel considered his oratorio Theodora (1749) to be one of his greatest achievements. A grim and sober tale culminating in tragedy, it was not popular in its day but is now regarded as a masterpiece.
Theodora is certainly not action­ packed. Instead, it compels through its sophisticated exploration of the characters’ moral, intellectual and spiritual dilemmas and its magnificent music.

Handel’s score is one of endless appeal and invention. Conductor Erin Helyard and the Orchestra of the Antipodes’ swift speeds, rhythmic verve, well­ integrated ensemble sound and curvaceous phrasing   captured its captivating mix of propulsive energy and reflective lyricism.

Aside from a couple of duets in the last two acts, Theodora largely comprises a succession of arias. With one exception, the six­ person cast rose to the occasion. In the title role, fresh­ voiced soprano Valda Wilson was outstanding. Capturing Theodora’s mix of determination and vulnerability, she cleverly varied her timbre: richly coloured in dramatic passages; pure and unadorned in more contemplative sections. As Irene, mezzo soprano Caitlin Hulcup was her equal. Sustaining a focused sense of line and appealing tonal warmth, she persuasively conveyed her character’s devotion to her faith.

Countertenor Christopher Lowrey (Didymus) was the standout male singer. Singing with penetrating clarity, he realised his soaring top register lines and rapid­ fire vocal fireworks with ease and assurance. Aside from occasional slightly strained upper register moments, tenor Ed Lyon (Septimius) displayed impressive agility and resounding power. Unfortunately baritone Andrew Collis lacked sufficient focus and strength to convince as the ruthless autocrat Valens.

Director Lindy Hume and her production team made a virtue of simplicity. The minimalist staging and modern­dressed cast allowed the oratorio’s universal themes to still ring true in the updating. Matthew Marshall’s lighting designs played a key scene­setting role. Despite some occasional odd shadows, the alternating washes of blue, orange, red and white light and periodic spotlighting generally established the right atmosphere. There were some jarring elements in Hume’s conception. It was a clever conceit for the chorus to have their jackets on as Romans and take them off as Christians. Why, then, did all the jackets have one paint­splattered arm, giving the impression that their wearers had just rushed in from a child’s chaotic art party? Although Hume’s direction largely overcame the limitations of the City Recital Hall stage, the performers were crammed in around a raised platform in the awkwardly positioned opening scene.

But none of this overly undermined the oratorio’s impact. Musically, Theodora was one of Pinchgut Opera’s best productions."

- Murray Black, The Australian (December 2, 2016)