George Frideric Handel’s affection for Theodora, a relatively little known oratorio about a fourth-century Christian martyr in Antioch, was such that he was said to have preferred it over the Christmas staple Messiah. The story may sound austere for today’s audience, but the rousing reception in the four curtain calls after three-and-half hours of music at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Jan. 27 indicated that the audience clearly connected with the lyrical, glorious and yet tragic oratorio.
Handel composed Theodora in 1749 at a time when British audiences were losing interest in big staged operas and their Protestant sensibilities were leaning towards oratorios with religious themes. Despite his shrewd business acumen, a confluence of events, including an earthquake that prompted many Londoners to temporarily flee the city, conspired against success for Handel.
Theodora, however, is emerging from relative obscurity, thanks to a groundbreaking but controversial Glyndebourne production directed by Peter Sellars in 1996. Sellars effectively transformed the oratorio to an opera by fully staging it with sets and costumes, and transformed the story of Christian martyrdom into a social commentary on capital punishment by setting the opera in a Texas military hospital where the two lovers, Theodora and Didymus, await their execution.
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County’s presentation of Theodora was decidedly traditional, without stage sets or controversy. But the performance was in no way lacking in vivid imagination and excitement.
Dorothea Röschmann, a rising star in the opera world, had a rich, velvety voice that gave a passionate urgency to her role as Theodora. The Handel arias under Röschmann had all the lyricism and drama of a Puccini aria. Yet in scenes where Theodora displayed fear and vulnerability, Röschmann’s voice turned sweetly delicate and feathery light, claiming the sympathetic hearts of those in the audience.
Röschmann’s pairing with David Daniels (who sang the Didymus role in the original Sellars production) as Theodora’s savior was a divine match. Despite the upper reaches of the counter-tenor’s notes, Daniels’ warm, passionate and full-bodied voice blended with that of Röschmann like two lovers in embrace, especially in the duet “I hope again to meet on earth, but sure shall meet in Heav’n.”
The role of the despotic Valens was sung by bass Neal Davies. Davies sang with such operatic flair, vengeance and salivating pleasure from torturing his subjects, threateningly gripping his fist and lurching forward, as to make the audience shudder with the utter of each word in “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire.”
Harry Bicket, conducting the venerable English Concert from the harpsichord, vividly brought to life the infectiously jubilant, rhythmic buoyancy and beautiful lyricism in Handel’s music. Bicket thoughtfully tacked on each transparent layer upon layer from each of the voices in the music like a Napoleon pastry, until the sweet music of Handel radiated the entire hall.
The period horns announced their presence as if inaugurating a gladiator game in the Roman Colosseum. The period flute echoed somber thoughts of Theodora as she lay in prison. The theorbo, which looks like a giant guitar with a neck extending several feet high, gave a contemplative quality to each character’s aria and recitative with its gentle harp-like sounding arpeggios.
The highly regarded Choir of Trinity Wall Street was masterful in alternating between the roles of the Chorus of the Heathens and of the Christians, bringing an earthy quality when the Heathens sang “While seizing the treasure, we revel in pleasure,” and a divine aura when the Christians sang “Rise, youth,” for which Handel had more fond feelings than the popular “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah.
However today’s diverse audience absorbs the religious material in Theodora, the music of Handel will surely transcend any limits of the libretto in appealing to the hearts and minds of audiences across time, border and religion. After all, in his music Handel comes across as a guy with whom you could share a bawdy joke over a pint of Guinness. And who wouldn’t want that kind of company?
—Samuel Jang, Culture Spot LA
For information about upcoming concerts from the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, visit https://www.philharmonicsociety.org.