Wednesday 28 February 2024

Beauty and meaning: Handel's Theodora from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo with Louise Alder in the title role

Handel: Theodora; Louise Alder, Tim Mead, Anna Stephany, Stuart Jackson, Adam Plachetka, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Alpha Classics

Handel: Theodora; Louise Alder, Tim Mead, Anna Stéphany, Stuart Jackson, Adam Plachetka, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Alpha Classics
Reviewed 20 February 2024

A performance of Handel's late masterpiece that combines musical beauties with a sense of the inner meaning of the words, with a wonderful central performance from Louise Alder

Considering that Handel evidently regarded it as one of his favourite oratorios and that any performance of it is something of an event, Handel's Theodora has rather a sparse history on disc, though the converse of that is that most of the recordings are that little bit special. Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli recorded it in 2000 with Susan Gritton and Susan Bickley, Maxim Emelyanychev and Il Pomo d'Oro recorded it in 2022 with Lisette Oropesa and Joyce DiDonato, whilst further back there is the recording with the unforgettable Lorraine Hunt Lieberson from 1992 as well as the famous Glyndebourne production.

Now Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo have turned their attention to the work with a new recording on Alpha Classics that features Louise Alder as Theodora, Tim Mead as Didymus, Anna Stéphany as Irene, Stuart Jackson as Septimus and Adam Plachetka as Valens. 

Jonathan Cohen first conducted the work with Arcangelo at the BBC Proms in 2018, and since then the group has done further performances. Whilst the cast of the Prom was largely different to that on the disc, a common thread running through all the performances has been the Theodora of Louise Alder and the ensemble's most recent London performance in March 2023 was linked to the recording of the disc.

For all the work's beauty and genius of Handel's music, Theodora is a tricky piece to bring off. Three off the characters, Theodora, Didymus and Irene, are persecuted Christians whilst Septimus havers between Christianity and Romanitas (in the original libretto there is a final scene for Septimus, unset by Handel, that has the man convert). This means that performers need to bring to the music a sense of meaning, of inner belief. With all Handelian oratorio, it is important that performers make the words count, for Handel and his librettists, oratorio was about the combination of word and music. And for librettists like Thomas Morrell (who wrote the texts for Theodora and for Jephtha) and for Charles Jennens (of Messiah fame), the story and text were paramount.

In concert, performances of Theodora can rather too often seem to be relying on the beauty of the music rather than any inner message, and there was an element of this in that 2018 Arcangelo performance at the BBC Proms [see my review] but living with the work seems to have giving the performance an inner glow. This is an extremely finely sung account of Theodora yet none of the performers seems to rely on sheer beauty, there is a lot more going on thankfully.

Louise Alder's Theodora has a sense of inner belief throughout, and she manages to make virtue believable and interesting. In Part One she is serious and self-possessed yet also with a sense of youthful glow, and in 'Angels, ever bright' she brings out the feeling of Theodora's inner life. In Part Two, with the problematic idea (to us today) of voluntary martyrdom, Alder is poised with real engagement in the passagework of 'O that I on wings could rise', yet transcendent too. In Part Three, there is the urgent beauty of 'When sunk in anguish and despair' but we end with sheer radiance of her final duet with Tim Mead's Didymus. This is, in fact, their second duet and Part Two ends with the poise of 'To thee, though glorious son of worth' with its gorgeously rich orchestration.

Anna Stéphany brings warmth, poise and inner strength to Irene. Stéphany manages that difficult trick of making Irene's music seem to have a sense of meaning, perhaps even an inner glow. Throughout, Stephany combines warmth of tone with firmness of line and that inner strength, beginning with a poised account of 'As with rosy steps'. Then in Part Two, 'Defend her heav'n' combines beauty with a sense of her faith, Stephany convinces that the words mean something to her, she radiates that belief, and this continues with her moving contributions to Part Three as well as the vividly urgent duet with Theodora, 'Whither, princess, do you fly'.

Didymus is not the action hero, though in Part Two his substituting himself for Theodora points to his strength of belief. Tim Mead brings great beauty of tone to the role, so that in Part One, 'Kind heav'n, if virtue be thy care' moves from beauty and mysticism to vivid drama. In Part Two, both 'Deeds of kindness' and 'Sweet rose & lily' combine poise with inner strength. And both he and Alder find a sense of meaning amidst the moving beauties of the final aria and duet.

Stuart Jackson's finely sung Septimus is one of the delights of the set. The character can often seem a bit reactive, less than dramatic (it was written for Thomas Lowe rather than the more dramatically vivid tenor of Thomas Beard). But here, Jackson takes great care of the music throughout, combining a sense of line with vibrant tone and a technical expertise that makes the passagework a real joy. Yet he finds meaning in everything, allied always to finely expressed phrasing. You would hardly buy a recording of Theodora for the Septimus, yet Jackson makes his contribution to the drama something special indeed.

Valens is simply the baddy and remains something of a cardboard character. Adam Plachetka does his best, singing with rugged vigour and vibrant tone. He spits out his words so that 'Racks, gibbets, sword & fire' really means something. 

The 27-strong chorus, with a mixture of men and women on the alto part, is in fine form throughout. Like the soloists, they find a sense of inner meaning in the music and project the words as if they mean something, that telling this story is important to them. Choruses like 'Go, gen'rous pious youth' at the end of Part One and 'He saw the lovely youth' have a convincing feeling of conviction allied to the beauty of phrasing, whilst the heathens' choruses are suitably vivid.

Handel's orchestration for the work is rich but not overly extravagant but the orchestra makes almost an extra character in the work, bringing out the expressive textures in the long introductions to some of the items. There is that sense of presence which displays Arcangelo at its best.

Everyone will have their favourite when it comes to recordings of Theodora. What this one has is a sense of balance in the casting, the feeling that everyone is in the same performance, and the feeling that they are here not to display themselves but to bring out the meaning of the story.

Handel: Theodora [178'32]
Theodora - Louise Alder
Didymus - Tim Mead
Irene - Anna Stephany
Septimus - Stuart Jackson
Valens - Adam Platchka
Jonathan Cohen (harpsichord & direction)
Recorded 31 March-6 April 2023, St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London (England)
ALPHA 1025 3CDs

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