Royal Opera House – Handel’s Theodora – Julia Bullock, Joyce DiDonato & Jakub Józef Orliński; directed by Katie Mitchell; conducted by Harry Bicket

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

Theodora – Julia Bullock
Irene – Joyce DiDonato
Valens – Gyula Orendt
Didymus – Jakub Józef Orliński
Septimius – Ed Lyon
Marcus – Thando Mjandana

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Harry Bicket

Director – Katie Mitchell
Designer – Chloe Lamford
Costume Designer – Sussie Juhlin-Wallen
Lighting Designer – James Farncombe
Movement Director – Sarita Piotrowski

4 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 2 February, 2022
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Judging from the number of performances of Theodora in recent times, including staged productions, this has become one of Handel’s most respected oratorios (‘popular’ would be too glib a word for so serious a work) – probably due more to its theme of persecution and freedom of conscience and belief, than the psychology and experience of Christian martyrdom specifically.

The programme explains that Katie Mitchell’s new production ‘jettisons the idea of the woman [Theodora] as doomed sacrificial victim – an opera trope familiar to the point of cliché’. It certainly achieves the former notion (though setting aside the fact that her lover, Didymus, is as much a sacrificial victim – or hero – just as are all martyrs, female and male, known and unknown, for whatever cause) insofar as (spoiler alert) she resists and is ultimately rescued from death by her fellow Christian, Irene. (The production note essentially gives away the concept by explaining that the staging updates the original fourth century setting in Roman Antioch to ‘an alternative modern reality where Christians work alongside their Roman oppressors in the Embassy of Valens, the Roman ambassador. Theodora secretly plots to destroy the Embassy’.) 

But the rub lies in the second part of the programme’s claim quoted at the beginning of this paragraph. Valens becomes a playboy, revelling in the pleasure afforded by the sex workers stationed in the Embassy (in the original scenario there is no suggestion that the court of Venus into which Theodora is forced to become a prostitute is to serve Valens’s benefit); and in certain scenes a lurid pole-dancing chamber and bedroom are revealed, in which Theodora and other sex workers are kinkily attired. Further, the Christians often wield guns against their persecutors with the same gratuitous freedom and violence as in any cheap Hollywood thriller. So, the production scores something of an own-goal in enlisting enough clichéd visual and dramatic tropes of its own, without any apparent irony. It might, perhaps, be better if the production confronted the implied violence of the original with more of a sardonic and wry irony in the manner of I, Claudius, for example, if it wants to preserve, in any modern or historical sense, its Roman context, as well as any sense of a vicious circle of force and vengeance (which the message of Handel’s original is surely aiming to transcend). It may not be an entirely a moot point, either, as to whether the production deliberately intends to avail itself of the time-honoured trope of making a satirical comment upon current political circumstances. The cold store of the Embassy into which Theodora and Didymus are thrust for their envisaged execution, calls to mind (in addition to a melodramatic parallel with Aida and Radames) Boris Johnson’s hiding in a fridge to avoid an inconvenient interrogation during the 2019 general election campaign, only then to escape and wreak his worst havoc after having won that election, just as the Christians go on to mete out their revenge upon the Embassy. And the garish décor of its sex chambers rather resembles the Johnsons’ much-publicised and costly redecoration scheme for the flat at No.10 Downing Street.

The unexpected turn of events at the conclusion (overturning the original plot) is a potent theatrical coup and salvages the production as imparting something of a message as nuanced (if less straightforward) as Thomas Morrell’s underlying text. More obviously it suggests that, as Christians employing violence, they fall rather short of the high ethical standards they claim to espouse, causing us to question the sincerity of the values promoted by them or any such religion or movement. This interpretation could go further and see that, as the Christians assassinate Valens here and then escape from the Embassy kitchen where that occurs to perpetrate further revenge, we might take the moral of the story to be that any persecuted group or minority will become, in time, the persecutors and bullies themselves. But a striking dramaturgical trick seems to make these ideas more ambiguous: at certain musically solemn and significant moments (Irene’s two celebrated arias; Act Two’s closing chorus; and Theodora and Didymus’s final duet) the surrounding stage action is slowed down in time with the music. The result is either to intensify the effect of the violence that is being enacted, or to make it seem unreal and dreamlike, as though not occurring in reality but rather as a sort of mythical happening or an imagined projection of what the persecuted but vengeful Christians would like to carry out. Either way, it draws a dramatically ironic contrast with the virtuous message of the original Oratorio.

Even so, the production undermines its potency to some extent. There are only a few brief indications to mark out the Christians as such, in this more or less contemporary setting – a small Christmas tree is briefly seen; Didymus is baptised over the kitchen worktop; and he and Theodora are married prior to their (attempted) execution. But with no other particular pointers to the identity of either the Christians or Romans within any specific context in this setting, the theme of oppression, freedom, and fighting back play out in a rather abstract arena, and so elicits no real dramatic sympathy or understanding for them. It does not help, either, that the action oscillates among a claustrophobic, horizontal sequence of rooms, not quite half the height of the Royal Opera House stage. What few windows are present do not look out on to anything as such; and without any reference to a wider world beyond, the tension and violence appear to amount to no more than a little local difficulty within the Embassy as order and conformity fail to be maintained (again, it resembles No.10 in that chaotic respect) rather than suggesting any more general social problem that might concern us. 

Musically, the performance is an unqualified success. Harry Bicket conducts the ROH Orchestra in an account that is urgent and engaging – by no means skating over its solemn and tragic character, but certainly cultivating a suitable thrust and momentum which underscores the notably un-passive behaviour of the Christians in this production. There are few occasions for Handelian ceremony and grandeur in this Oratorio, even in the choral numbers, but where they do arise – notably with the Romans’ celebration of the Emperor’s birthday – that is met with a menacing jauntiness on the part of the strings and trumpets. The Chorus endow the Christians’ numbers with a layered subtlety which brings out the contrapuntal nature of their music, but as though to instil it with dynamism and conspiratorial activity, rather than pious devotion.

Julia Bullock leads the cast with a quietly unflinching interpretation of the title role, singing crisply and lucidly, even as she undergoes the trials of imprisonment and degradation. Joyce DiDonato tempers her customary vocal flair – with the odd exception of some embellishments at cadences to heighten the emotion effectively – in expressing Irene’s steadfast loyalty both to her friend Theodora and to her convictions, with a solid musical presence that is often icily steady rather than warmly compassionate. 

Jakub Józef Orliński displays fine vocal and bodily form as Didymus. In his singing he demonstrates a certain febrile anxiety brought within expert musical control, as he contemplates the fearful consequences of aligning himself with the Christians. But in each Act he is also required to strip himself, turning the tables on the way that, as in the person of Theodora the female body is subjected to the whims and desires of an oppressive patriarchy, the audience perhaps becomes complicit in gazing exploitatively upon the male form instead, again confounding what a more literal re-telling of the story would lead us to expect. Ed Lyon is an eloquent Septimius, the Roman friend of Didymus, projecting outward confidence but with a streak of confusion and fluster as he comes to sympathise with the Christians’ plight. In the part of Valens, Gyula Orendt brings a suitably grainy, gruff authority as he threatens punishment to those who disobey the order to worship the Roman gods, and later a tellingly more effete character as he gives himself over to pleasure, dissipating any moral claim to authority. 

Peter Sellars’s ground-breaking production for Glyndebourne in the mid-1990s still stands out for its direct confrontation of the horrors of capital punishment, whilst Stephen Langridge’s more recent interpretation for Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 2015 preserves a more solemn, ritualistic sense of a community under threat of oppression and extinction (both are captured on film).  Mitchell provides a more provocative, oblique angle on the work, which rightly questions its assumptions and the sort of responses it is supposed to prompt. Whether it does so with consistent success is open to question, but undoubtedly it provides a different, more complicating dimension to the story of unsullied moral purity which is otherwise articulated so compellingly in Handel’s music.

Further performances to February 16

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