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February 10, 2014 5:53 pm
Handel’s Theodora was a flop at its Covent Garden premiere in 1750 and then lay neglected for 200 years – not surprising, perhaps, when this is the least extrovert of all his oratorios, a sombre tale of early Christian self-sacrifice painted in muted colours. Nearly four hours long including intervals, it might seem to invite martyrdom on the part of the audience as well.
It was the Glyndebourne production of 1996 that truly revealed the work as a masterpiece. All performances since then have tended to pale in its shadow, but the English Concert and its artistic director, Harry Bicket, have risen to the challenge, taking their Theodora on tour to both coasts of the US and now London, Birmingham and Paris.
This was a high-quality performance on all counts. Bicket is not just a brisk, non-interventionist Baroque conductor. He searched out colour and expression in the inner parts, drawing a wealth of rich playing from the English Concert, and kept the music underpinned with a sturdy rhythmic impetus – a bit like the late Charles Mackerras’s Handel (though he usually had traditional instruments). It is a shame that Theodora does not include more rousing choruses, as the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, with its strong lower voices – a contrast to the lighter English choral sound – made a very worthwhile US import for the occasion.
Against this boldly sketched backdrop it would have been good to have singers with equally bold personalities in the foreground. Neal Davies’s Valens certainly started the performance off in style, calling for “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire” with bloodthirsty zeal. In the title role Rosemary Joshua started out with Handelian purity, but rose to her act of self-sacrifice with more strength of purpose. Kurt Streit, usually a skilled Handel tenor, sounded hard and edgy of voice.
The singers in the crucial roles of visionary Irene and tender Didymus – Sarah Connolly, warm-toned and nobly understated as Irene, and Tim Mead, raising his game to project notes of radiant purity as Didymus – were of no less quality. But Glyndebourne’s singers of those two roles (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and David Daniels) lifted the oratorio to unforgettable heights. That production really has spoiled us for everything that has come afterwards.
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