Theodora, Barbican Hall, London

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In retrospect, it is clear that Glyndebourne’s unforgettable staging of the oratorio Theodora in the mid-1990s marked a watershed. The Handel revival was already well under way by that point, but here was proof that his neglected works were not just worth hearing – some of them, at least, were masterpieces.

Hardly a month goes past now without an opera house somewhere offering something by Handel. Far from being neglected, his large-scale works are in danger of over-exposure and it is easy to start getting choosy whenever performances are the slightest bit less than magnificently played or sung.

Not that any evening which opens with Matthew Rose’s Valens raising the Barbican roof summoning “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire” can be half bad. This young bass is progressing at a rate of knots, the combination of his big, natural voice and a fast-growing stage awareness promising a world-beating artist before too long.

Despite its Glyndebourne staging Theodora, as an oratorio, was not intended for the theatre. Compared to Handel’s other oratorios it is even one of the most devotional and the question is how far to try to inject it with drama. Emmanuelle Haïm, with the fine orchestra and chorus of Le Concert d’Astrée, gave us lithe and elegantly turned music-making, but left the darker emotional depths of this drama about Christian persecution largely undisturbed.

Geraldine McGreevy probably judged the balance best, keeping the saintly quality of innocent, virginal Theodora to the fore, while suggesting reserves of Christian determination below the surface, whereas Anne Sofie von Otter, as her confidant Irene, was tempted into over-characterising every word, as though slapping on the stage make-up too thickly.

Stephen Wallace’s counter-tenor was pleasing as far as it went, but needed more variety to fill out such a long and multi-faceted a part as Didymus. Paul Agnew, everybody’s favourite early music tenor, made a sympathetic Septimius. It seems churlish to carp at a performance that was for the most part thoughtful and stylish, but there is too much Handel around now for anything less than the very best to warrant an entry in the Handelian annals. ★★★☆☆

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