Review Written by Tony Watts
Although today Theodora, Handel‘s penultimate oratorio, is recognised as containing some of his most inspired, deeply-felt music it was not much admired at the time of its first performance at Covent Garden in 1750. Working with one of his favourite librettists, Thomas Morell, Handel’s only English language oratorio on a Christian subject elicited a deep response from the composer. The story of the persecution and subsequent martyrdom of a saint may not have appealed to the public at its earliest performances, but it inspired Handel to great heights and its themes of religious freedom have rather more resonance for contemporary audiences. It is a wonderfully rich score with the composer at his most inspiredly human. He was in his sixty-fifth year and still in full possession of his powers while using all the experience he had gained during a long, productive career. He considered it among the very finest of all his works and hearing it can be a profoundly moving experience as this admirable performance showed, although it could be argued that the Royal Albert Hall with its capricious acoustic is simply too big for what is, after all, apart from its large-scale choruses, a fairly-intimate work.
Initial portents for Theodora were not good. Only a week before the first performance London suffered an unprecedented earthquake. People fled the capital in large numbers and many were still absent on the night of the premiere which partially explained the poor houses at the only three performances that took place.
The first cast of Theodora included the castrato Gaetano Guadagni for whom Handel wrote the role of Didymus. It was unusual for him to include this voice type in his English Oratorios, but Guadagni had already appeared with success in performances of Messiah and Samson in specially adapted versions of the roles. He went on to create the title role in Gluck’s’ Orfeo.
In recent years Theodora has been rehabilitated and found a ready audience in the UK through the memorable, if controversial, Peter Sellars production at Glyndebourne with the transcendent performance of the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson as Irene at its centre. Sellars later commented that ‘visionary works such as this wait for another era in which they are allowed to speak in their own language and not have to ventriloquise the conventional wisdom of the day’. As soon as this year’s Prom programme was announced it was clear that this concert performance would be one of the summer’s highlights. So it proved!
The driving force behind the performance’s success was the orchestra and chorus of Arcangelo a fairly new (formed in 2010), expert, stylish period music group under its founder and conductor Jonathan Cohen. The chorus shone particularly in the lengthy ‘He saw the lovely youth’, Handel’s favourite of all the choruses he wrote. Its clean articulation throughout was a model of its kind. The orchestra boasted ideal string tone, beautifully – played woodwind and a duo of superbly pungent horns.
It is hard to imagine a finer cast being assembled today for a performance of Theodora than that heard at this Prom. Louise Alder‘s gleaming lyric soprano was the ideal instrument for the heroine’s music, particularly impressive in her sensitive ‘Angels ever bright and fair’ and in a touching reading of ‘When sunk in anguish and despair’. It is a most lovely voice and she was in top form here. Her final duet with Iestyn Davies‘s near-ideal Didymus brought out all the emotion of the tragic situation so perfectly expressed in Handel’s sublime music.
Davies was a joy throughout, projecting his voice into the hall’s vast spaces to great effect. Benjamin Hulett was a fine, upstanding Septimius, his clear, supple tone making the most of his fairly-limited opportunities to shine. Sadly the composer cut some of the tenor’s music when putting together the final version of the score. Bass-baritone Tareq Nazmi gave a vivid character study of the vicious Valens, but sadly his dark tone was somewhat wooly.
It was a pleasure to hear Ann Hallenberg‘s portrayal of the sympathetic Irene. As beautifully sung as one would expect from this artist, the part is a Handelian gift to any mezzo and she lavished every facet of her superior artistry on it with a most dulcet ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ and a heartfelt ‘Lord, to thee’ just two of many highlights, even if there were moments when she seemed a tad too reticent.
All in all a most memorable concert and I gather, one of a series of Handel operas and oratorios scheduled to be heard at the Proms in future years. This was one of those evenings which was so involving that the noise and bustle of the outside world afterwards seemed even more intrusive than usual.
Handel’s Theodora was shown on the BBC Proms on Friday 7 September. If you want to listen to a recording of the performance broadcasted live at BBC Radio 3, please click here. For more information on the BBC Proms 2018 season, go here.
Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.)
Tony Watts is a keen opera, concert, theatre and ballet-goer. He has spent most of his working life in the music industry, including a 16-year spell at Decca Records. He has compiled and produced over 1,000 re-issues on CD, LP and digital formats, and written notes for several hundred more. In addition to writing for a wide variety of musical books and publications, Tony has worked as a music consultant on films and on exhibitions for the V&A. Follow Tony now on Twitter: