Handel’s Theodora at Barbican Hall – The English Concert/Harry Bicket with Rosemary Joshua, Sarah Connolly, Tim Mead, Kurt Streit & Neal Davies

Theodora – Oratorio in three Acts to a libretto by Thomas Morell adapted from Robert Boyle’s 1667 novel The Martyrdom of Theodora and of Didymus [concert performance sung in English with English surtitles]

Theodora – Rosemary Joshua
Irene – Sarah Connolly
Didymus – Tim Mead
Septimius – Kurt Streit
Valens – Neal Davies

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street

The English Concert
Harry Bicket

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 February, 2014
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Harry Bicket (c) Richard HaughtonUniquely among Handel’s religious oratorios, Theodora (1750) does not recount any Biblical story, but an episode in the history of the early Christian Church. Handel even wryly explained its cool public reception as due to the fact that “the Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the Ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one”. In an increasingly secular age, the moral and spiritual motivations of the martyred characters at the centre of this drama might seem difficult to fathom, though undoubtedly some very real and intense human emotions and relationships are explored. But it is in this dimension that Handel’s music speaks so powerfully, as compared with the greater metaphysical assurance of Bach’s religious music. Indeed it is probably the dramatic power with which Handel responded to the human predicament of Theodora and Didymus that has led modern-day audiences to appreciate this oratorio as one of Handel’s finest, not least since it was memorably mounted at Glyndebourne. That Handel saw the work in terms of a human tragedy is clear enough from his setting of the final chorus in the minor mode, despite its apparently hopeful words.

Rosemary Joshua (c) Peter WarrenThe action is set in Antioch in the context of the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christianity, who requires everybody to celebrate his birthday with sacrifices to Jove. Death will be the punishment meted out on those who disobey. This includes Theodora – one of Handel’s humble but unbendingly righteous heroines, like Iphis and Susanna – and Didymus, the Roman soldier and Christian convert.

Rosemary Joshua certainly picked out Theodora’s simple trust and faith with singing that was direct and untroubled, as demonstrated in ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’. It was consistent that in her two consecutive arias in Act Two she first expressed Theodora’s grief in ‘With darkness deep’ only as a sullen draining of energy rather than pointed anguish, and she followed this with a quiet, but emboldened confidence in ‘Oh that I on wings could rise’. In the two Symphonies interspersed between these numbers, the pathetic answers of Lisa Beznosiuk’s solo flute-playing to the orchestra’s commentary further heightened Theodora’s solitude.

Joshua’s performance would have been a touch more dramatically compelling if there had been more rapture as she set her hopes on the afterlife in Heaven. More contrast might have been effected too by greater assertiveness in her exchanges with Irene in Act Three, where Theodora remains subservient to her fate. Tim Mead’s Didymus essentially complemented Joshua’s unaffected simplicity. But he was certainly no mere foil for her, as he retained a vital independent function as an eloquent advocate for tolerance in Act One in his attempt to forestall the consequences of Valens’s decree.

Sarah Connolly’s Irene was the star of the show, for musical stoicism and tonal richness, not least in ‘Defend her heaven’, where the steady focus of her prayer was also tinged with some understandable human anxiety, as she implored Heaven to protect Theodora, her close companion.

Kurt Streit replaced Andrew Kennedy as Septimius, and at a late stage, although he had just given the role in New York, but his voice is not really suited to a Handelian role. His singing tended to become excitable, even brash, especially in the upper register, and made something clownish of the part. Arguably there is a need for contrast to the otherworldly earnestness of Theodora, Didymus and Irene, even as Septimius shows some sympathy with their Christian outlook. But his characterisation rather descended into caricature, seemingly in a bid to outdo the sternly declamatory realisation of Valens by Neal Davies. Although Valens does not necessarily have to be seen as an overbearing, sadistic figure, there was an aspect of cynicism and disbelief at the actions of the Christians in Davies’s depiction at the work’s denouement.

No less of a character – or rather, two – in its own right, is the chorus, representing the pagan Romans and the Christians. Handel carefully delineated the separate roles by different types of music – lively homophonic textures for the Romans and more solemn, seamlessly sustained polyphony for the Christians. The members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street almost sounded like two different ensembles as they tackled each part, though clear diction and innate musicality were marks of both. It was telling that in the guise of the Romans in ‘How strange their ends’ they were able to modulate cannily to a tone of mellifluous Christian serenity as they recognised the noble sacrificial virtue exemplified by Theodora and Didymus.

Under Harry Bicket’s direction The English Concert was generally adept at instilling dramatic life over the course of more than three hours of music. Bicket chose judiciously between leading from the harpsichord and conducting at others, and creating an ethereal effect at pregnant moments. Overall, what little the performance lacked in coherence or contrast, it certainly made up for in sincerity, and for that reason was moving.

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