Premiered at Covent Garden Theatre in March 1750, Theodora is one of the finest dramatic oratorios by George Frideric Handel. Written within one month in the summer of 1749, Theodora was not a success upon its premiere. Yet, posterity has, deservedly, deemed it a masterpiece.
Handel’s penultimate oratorio is a tragedy based on Christian subject. With a libretto by Thomas Morell, Handel’s longtime collaborator and friend, it tells the story of Christian saints Theodora and Didymus, who died as martyrs in Alexandria in 304.
Theodora, a young noblewoman of Alexandria, was imprisoned after her refusal to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Initially saved by Didymus, who persuaded her to conceal her identity by wearing his helmet and armor and escape, while Didymus stayed in prison in her stead. However, as Didymus was condemned to death, Theodora went to the court offering herself in Didymus’ stead. As either of them refused to be saved by the other, they both were executed.
For Morrell and Handel, the legend provided an inspiring starting point for a dramatic oratorio. Although Theodora lends itself to the stage quite well, it probably makes more intimate and compelling effect as a concert oratorio, as demonstrated by the fine performance with Arcangelo, conducted by Jonathan Cohen at the Vienna Konzerthaus on Saturday.
Featuring an excellect cast, the Arcangelo performance was both intense and intimate, true to Handel’s score and Morrell’s libretto.
Cast in three acts, Theodora opens with preparations for the feast of Diocletian’s birthday. During the feast, all citizens are to sacrifice for Venus.
The music begins with a characteristically spirited overture, followed by the first scene. For the chorus of heathens, Handel writes splendid quasi-regal music, with full orchestral accompaniment, including two trumpets and timpani.
From the very opening on, one could but marvel the dazzling performance of the instrumentalists and singers of Arcangelo. The orchestra brought Handel’s music to life with tremendous energy and radiant instrumental colour, whereas the chorus sung with admirable clarity and dexterity. Marvellously expressive, the choral numbers were pure joy.
In the opening scene we meet the main antagonist, the Roman governor Valens, a bass, whose lines are clad in fierce authority and zeal by Handel. Following Valens’ decree that all citizens are obliged to offer sacrifice to Venus, Didymus, a soldier and secretly a Christian, is troubled by the safety of his fellow Christians. Sung by a countertenor, Didymus’ soaring vocal lines convey his virtuous character in a formidable manner.
Contertenor Tim Mead was a wonderful Didymus. His soaring vocal lines were always immaculately articulated and carefully nuanced, resulting in a gripping performance. Bass Neal Davies, who had stepped in for Brindley Sherratt for the Konzerthaus performance, gave compelling and well characterized performance as Valens. A veteran to the role, Davies has sung Valens in many productions, including a fabulous Archiv recording, conducted by Paul McCreesh.
The first act concludes with Theodora worshipping God among her Christian community. A messenger appears, bringing news of Valens’ decree. As the Christians refuse to perform the sacrifice to Venus, Septimus, a Roman soldier, arrests Theodora, who is then forced to serve as a prostitute, while imprisoned in Venus’ temple.
In Theodora, Septimus is a link between the Roman and Christian traditions. As fellow soldiers, Septimus and Didymus exchange thoughts on justice and religion, contemplating on the key subjects of the libretto. Convincingly portrayed by tenor Jeremy Ovenden, Septimus’ role was in good hands.
For Christians, Handel writes choruses of solemn piousness. Theodora, a soprano, sings radiant, pure vocal lines, reflecting her youth and purity, but also steadfast determination, to a stunning effect. Handel’s music for her friend, Irene, an alto, is rooted in subtle, solemn beauty.
Troughout Theodora, soprano Louise Alder shone in the title role, providing a deeply gratifying take on Theodora. Her vocal art expressed her character in luminous manner, resulting in a ravishing performance.
Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany’s portrayal of Irene was yet another highlight. Her sublime voice had an enchanting effect upon the listener.
The second act opens with the Roman festival. The chorus sings praises to nature and summer, Venus’ manifestation. Here, Handel’s choral writing flourishes in wondrous counterpoint.
As Septimus allows his friend Didymus to pay a visit to Theodora in her imprisonment, the music takes an intimate turn. Handel scores the meeting of the two with moments of ravishing subtlety as well as heated intensity. Theodora pleads Didymus to wield his sword and end her suffering. Didymus protests, and in the end Theodora agrees to flee, while Didymus is left imprisoned.
Irene and the chorus conclude the second act with a reflection of the miracle of the Widow of Nain from the Gospel of Luke. Another gorgeous setting by Handel, the act closes with a vision of Heaven.
As customary nowadays, there was only one intermission, placed in the middle of the second act, after the second scene, depicting Theodora alone in her captivity. In terms of both music and drama, this was a functional solution.
The third act brings together all the charactes for the final trial and resolution. Theodora and Didymus accept death by Roman law as a consequence of their unwavering faith. The chorus of Romans marvel at their unshaken determination. Following a moving final duet between Theodora and Didymus, the oratorio ends with a comforting final chorus, celebrating divine love as an inspiration to the soul.
As a whole, the Arcangelo performance of Theodora was most rewarding one. With soaring intensity, the listener was completely immersed in the performance on a very personal, intimate level. This was a Theodora with lasting effect.
Jonathan Cohen, harpsichord and conductor
George Frideric Handel: Theodora – Oratorio in three parts, HWV 68 (1749)
Louise Alder, soprano (Theodora)
Anna Stéphany, mezzo-soprano (Irene)
Tim Mead, countertenor (Didymus)
Jeremy Ovenden, tenor (Septimus)
Neal Davies, bass (Valens)
Saturday 18 January, 6.30 pm
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Wiener Konzerthaus / Lukas Beck (concert), © Arcangelo / Julian Forbes (rehearsal)