London Handel Festival 2009 – Theodora

Theodora – Oratorio in three acts

Valens – Lisandro Abadie
Didymus – Andrew Radley
Septimus – Charles Daniels
Theodora – Erica Eloff
Irene – Susan Bickley
Messenger – Richard Rowntree

London Handel Singers

London Handel Orchestra
Laurence Cummings

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 23 February, 2009
Venue: St George’s Hanover Square, London

“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.” Thus Handel on his penultimate oratorio, unpopular with the public during his time but now experiencing a resurgence of interest thanks in part to the London Handel Society and Peter Sellars’s iconic Glyndebourne production. Jews, Ladies and every other representative of the London concertgoer packed the pews of St George’s for this performance which convinced us of the truth of the Earl of Shaftesbury’s alternative opinion, that Theodora is “as finished, beautifull and labour’d a composition, as ever Handel made.”

It’s impossible for anyone present at those life-changing Glyndebourne performances in 1996, which introduced Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Dawn Upshaw and David Daniels, to hear “Theodora” without imagining those voices and seeing Sellars’s stage pictures, but such was the commitment shown here that it was often possible to hear the work anew.

A particular feature of this Festival is the collaboration between experienced singers and younger artists, and there were two perfect pairings here in the shape of Susan Bickley’s Irene with Erica Eloff’s Theodora, and Charles Daniels’s Septimus with Andrew Radley’s Didymus. Although it took her a little while to get into her stride, Bickley presented a heart-rending characterisation, her poignant timbre ideally suited to ‘As with rosy steps’, where she was wonderfully supported by Laurence Cummings’s dynamic, muscular harpsichord continuo – and how often do you hear those adjectives applied to that instrument?

Eloff was the winner of last year’s Handel Singing Competition, and on this showing the judges made a worthy choice: she’s a real Handel soprano, light and flexible in style yet able to convey depth of emotion, and she created a genuinely noble Theodora, especially in ‘The pilgrim’s home, the sick man’s wealth’ and the final duet. The fact that she looks like a fashion model won’t do her any harm, either.

The other pairing was not quite so successful: Radley bears some physical resemblance to David Daniels but he is not quite there with the voice; there is a patch of greyness in the timbre, and as yet the phrasing is not as distinct as it needs to be – nevertheless this is a promising young artist displaying agility in rapid coloratura and a melting quality in the intonation; the difficult ‘Kind Heav’n’ was particularly successful. His experienced counterpart had a few problems with the long lines of both his major arias, but in the wonderful ‘Descend, kind pity’ you sensed the phrasing of a tenor who has this music in his soul.

Lisandro Abadie (a finalist in the 2008 HSC) was a confident, appropriately arrogant Valens, his fine-grained baritone conveying just the right aura of military swagger, and Richard Rowntree relished his moments of glory as the Messenger. The London Handel Singers came as close to actually sounding like “a Chorus of Heathens” when required, as any group I’ve heard, and as the “Chorus of Christians” they gave so winning an account of ‘He saw the lovely youth’ that you began to appreciate why Handel himself considered it superior to ‘Hallelujah!’

“Theodora” is so full of glorious music that it richly repays the effort of performance, although there were some in the audience who felt that a few cuts would have made those pews more bearable. Laurence Cummings would have none of this view, directing an uncut score from the keyboard just as Handel would have done, and getting some vigorous playing from the London Handel Orchestra – there were moments when I felt that, unusually, the brass were a little muted, but otherwise the balance was ideal for this sometimes-unyielding acoustic.

Handel worshipped in this church, a stroll from his home in Brook Street, so it’s quite an experience to hear his music in this setting.

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