Valens Matthew Rose
Didymus Stephen Wallace
Septimius Paul Agnew
Theodora Geraldine McGreevy
Irene Anne Sofie von Otter
Messenger Simon Wall
Le Concert dAstrée Orchestra & Chorus
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 17 October, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Strange to think that “Theodora” – Handel’s penultimate oratorio and a flop at its first performances in 1750 – has only been resuscitated in public awareness in the last 15 years or so. Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s heavily cut performance was recorded in 1990, and Nicholas McGegan’s complete one appeared on Harmonia Mundi in 1991, when one Lorraine Hunt sang the title role. Five years later Hunt was Irene in Peter Sellars’s justly acclaimed Glyndebourne production, conducted by William Christie. This Barbican performance was dedicated to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s memory, following her death in July, aged only 52.
Unbelievably prescient in the light of Guantanamo Bay (over half-a-decade into the future from the first appearance of Sellars’s production), with the Christians, Theodora and Didymus, incarcerated in orange boiler suits, “Theodora” can claim to be not only one of Glyndebourne’s most successful recent productions, but also one of Sellars’s best. Emmanuelle Haïm conducted the 2003 Glyndebourne tour revival and returned with her Didymus, countertenor Stephen Wallace, for this concert performance in the Barbican’s “Great Performers” series with her own band Le Concert d’Astrée Orchestra. She also took it to Paris, as part of the Théâtre de Champs Elysées programme (Thursday 19 October).
The first of the Handel operas/oratorios this “great Performers” season (“Ariodante” – 27 March 07; “Giulio Cesare” – 19 April; and “Amadigi di Gaula” – 18 May follow), Haïm directed a perfectly paced performance that set the highest standard for those performances to come. With her band on superb form (the trio of Olivier Bénichou’s transverse flute, Héloïse Gaillard’s recorder – swapped from her normal oboe – and Philippe Miqueu’s bassoon was utterly exquisite), Haïm conducted with an urgency that knocked 15 minutes of the anticipated running-time (an important factor in a performance scheduled to come down at 11 p.m.). Such seamless exigency negated any audience impulse to applaud individual numbers, perhaps the most important factor in knocking off the time, and made the performance as a whole more satisfying.
Although it didn’t have the emotional punch of Sellars’s stage production, there was something cumulative about the performance, with incisive choral contributions and a clutch of very fine soloists that reinforced the masterpiece-status that the work has latterly been accorded. Paul Agnew may not have been totally secure in the role of Septimius, Anne Sofie von Otter not as deeply heartfelt as Lorraine Hunt as Irene and Geraldine McGreevy not as fervently affecting in the title role but, together, the ensemble quietly underscored the Oratorio’s relevance to modern times.
Given the furore over the wearing of burkahs or crosses and the like recently, this 256-year-old work about religious tolerance (or lack of it) speaks incredibly vividly. One wonders whether we have moved forward at all in the last 1500 years (the work is set in the time of Diocletian and is the only overtly Christian story Handel set, “Messiah” excepted, because most of its text is based – like all Handel’s other Biblical subjects – on the Old Testament).
Haïm’s thorough preparation – the organ/harpsichord combination (not played by her) unusual in that the front legs of the harpsichord had been removed so its keyboard could be nestled on top of the chamber organ – and her performers’ quiet dedication established this as one of Handel’s greatest works.
No wonder it sold out, the audience happy to forgo any thought of difficulty getting home to sit attentively right to the end. The only marring factor came early on – with an awkward letting in of late-comers, including a pair on the very front row, who found their seats while Geraldine McGreevy was singing, right in front of them.