Saturday 8 September 2018

Moments of beauty: Handel's intimate oratorio Theodora from Arcangelo at the BBC Proms

Handel: Theodora - Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo - BBC Proms - (photo Chris Christodoulou/BBC)
Handel: Theodora - Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo - BBC Proms
(photo Chris Christodoulou/BBC)
Handel Theodora; Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Benjamin Hulett, Ann Halenberg, Tareq Nazmi, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 September 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Handel's intimate penultimate oratorio in an, at times, profoundly beautiful performance

For the penultimate BBC Prom of 2018, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo brought a performance of Handel's penultimate oratorio, Theodora on Friday 7 September 2018 at the Royal Albert Hall. Cohen conducted the chorus and orchestra of Arcangelo, leader Michael Guruvich, with Tareq Nazmi as Valens, Iestyn Davies as Didymus, Benjamin Hulett as Septimus, Louise Alder as Theodora and Ann Hallenberg as Irene.

Handel's oratorio premiered in 1750 and was remarkably unsuccessful, though it was one of Handel's favourites amongst his oratorios. The libretto by the Revd Thomas Morell, based on an 18th century novel, treats Christian martyrdom rather than the dramatic Old Testament subjects for which Handel had become known in his oratorios. The work rather languished in the Handel canon until the 1990s when Peter Sellars directed a stage production at Glyndebourne which really brought out the dramatic intensity which underlies the work with its depiction of Christian martyrdom.

For all its large-scale choruses, Theodora is a remarkably intimate work and relies for its impact on the soloists being able to convey the sense of the characters' inner life. The work has few dramatic events and is rather leisurely, particularly in Act One, and we need to feel the inner convictions of Theodora, Irene and Didymus as Christians.

Arcangelo used relatively large forces, an orchestra based on 23 strings with four oboes and a choir of 36, and the choral/orchestral contributions were strongly characterised and vividly engaged. The orchestra gave us some vivid detail from the overture onwards, whilst the choir made a strong difference between the lively Heathens and the more intense Christians, including a strikingly sober yet intense account of Handel's favourite chorus, 'He saw the lovely youth'.

From the soloists we got a profoundly beautifully sung account of the work, this was Handel singing at its finest, with all the soloists giving us confidently stylish and engaging performances often with great beauty of line and a real sense of how Handel creates his music. Unfortunately, in the open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, not everyone managed to convey the sense of the characters' inner lives, particularly the burning Christian intensity which has to fuel the main action, with Didymus and Theodora going to their deaths willingly. But to a certain extent, this was compensated for by the sheer beauty of the performance.

Louise Alder was radiant as Theodora. Rather a passive character, Alder used a great variety of tone colour to bring Theodora to life and she was not frightened of fining her tone right down or singing with really bleached tones, always giving that sense of Theodora's inner intensity. Her scene towards the beginning of Act Two, when she is first in prison (this concluded the first half of the Prom) is fascinating as we get a clear hint of the later early 19th century double aria, with Handel using a slower cavatina-like movement, then a symphony and recitative before the final, lively da capo air. And in this air, Alder managed the difficult trick of making the joyful passages seem very serious in intent (Theodora's joy is all about the world to come), yet still impressed technically.

Some of the most striking music in the work is in the two duets for Theodora and Didymus, the first in prison, beautifully balanced and moving, the second at the end which almost develops from a solo for Didymus, profoundly beautiful yet also profund in its philosophy too. Here Louise Alder and Iestyn Davies were a beautifully balanced and complementary pairing, giving us luscious beauty and moving emotion.

Elsewhere, Iestyn Davies did not always manage to bring out Didymus' underlying sense of Christian intensity. In the earlier part of the work Davies' performance, beautiful and stylish though it was, seemed to rarely move beyond the generic brooding. Only towards the end of the Act Two prison scene with Theodora did we get a sense of Didymus' underlying firmness of purpose, particularly in the recitative ' Fear not for me; the pow'r that led me hither will guard me hence; if not, his will be done!' and I simply wished that Davies had conveyed more of this earlier on in the piece. Similarly the final scene was wonderfully firm of purpose and intent, finely sung and ultimately very moving.

The role of Septimius was written for the tenor Thomas Lowe, who was known for his beautiful voice yet lacked the acting ability of Handel's other tenor John Beard (for whom the title role in Handel's final oratorio, Jephtha, was written). It is perhaps notable that librettist Thomas Morell wrote, but Handel did not set, a dramatic scene where Septimius converts to Christianity. So instead Septimius is a sympathetic but rather passive observer. Benjamin Hulett did this finely, with the high tessitura of the role not troubling him at all. Hulett sang with a lovely sense of heroic line, but with a nice flexibility to the performance, so much so that you wished Handel had given him some more challenging dramatic music to sing!

The role of Valens certainly does not lack drama, and Tarequ Nazmi certainly worked hard to bring out the dramatic element of the music. But it took him some time to get the measure of the auditorium, and it was only in the last Act that the real vividness of Valens' music came over.

In the right hands the role of Irene, the leader of the Christians in Antioch, can almost come over as the leading character. Not that she particularly does anything, but Handel gives her a series of arias which can be profound in their intensity and with artists like Lorraine Hunt Liebson or Susan Bickley the results can be searing. Ann Hallenberg, best known perhaps for her work in more bravura baroque operas, sang Irene with a lovely tone quality and she pointed up the music beautifully, each aria was finely done and often exquisitely beautiful. But perhaps I would have liked less beauty and more intensity, more plangent tone. As it was Hallenberg came over as a soothing older Aunt, rather than someone who shared the intensity of Theodora's Christian belief.

This was an always absorbing and stylish account of Handel's intimate and intense oratorio, with some profoundly beautiful moments yet there was also a feeling that if the BBC had presented the piece in the Cadogan Hall, the oratorio's unique atmosphere might have counted for more. As it is, if you listen on BBC iPlayer your sense of the work might be very different to that we experience in the Royal Albert Hall.

Update: A correnspondent has raised the issue of continuo, and the use of a lute (Thomas Dunford) which Handel would not have used at this time. Also I noticed the organ continuo tended to pop up in arias in an anachronistic way, and even the harpsichord in a chorus at one point.

The same correspondent confirmed that Septimius' role was cut, which deprives us of some of his character.

Recommended recording: Lorraine Hunt, David Daniels, Dawn Upshaw, Richard Croft, William Christie, Glyndebourne (1996), CD from Amazon, DVD from Amazon.

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1 comment:

  1. On Septimius, Handel did give him more challenging music; two of his arias were cut, the first in Act 1 Dread the fruit of Christian folly is a strong Allegro and its loss was felt. The loss of Didymus''Deeds of kindness' from Act 2 did not help his characterisation. (If cutting was needed, Irene's first and last arias are obvious candidates.) I was at the back of the hall where the sound seemed more occluded.The use of the overactive lute in the continuo was an anachronism that jarred; Handel's last use of the lute was in Deiademeia (1741); the only continuo instruments needed for Theodora are harpsichord and aourgan


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