WHILE Samson, Saul, Jephtha,
Israel in Egypt and other English oratorios by Handel tell
Old Testament stories, Theodora, recently heard at the
Town Hall, Birmingham, and the Barbican, in London, performed by
the English Concert, conducted by Harry Bicket, is the only one -
if you exclude the hybrid Old and New Testament Messiah -
that dwells on an exclusively Christian story, taken from the early
centuries of the Roman Empire.
It explores the martyrdom of a Middle Eastern princess, a
leading member of a Christian cell during the persecution unleashed
in the East in 303-04 by the Emperor Diocletian, not ten years
before Constantine declared Christians' freedom to worship
Handel was aware that it might not have the appeal that
tub-thumping colossi such as Judas Maccabaeus had enjoyed.
And, indeed, it enjoyed minimal popularity (just three
performances) at the time; but the composer clung to his affection
for the work, and a remarkable (and grisly) staging by American
director Peter Sellars, first seen at Glyndebourne in 1996, did
much to heighten interest in this once unfashionable oratorio.
With good reason. The solo writing is vital and dramatic, and
even the chorus - which here was the Choir of Trinity, Wall Street,
an American ensemble so vital and rhythmically adept that it
contributed some of the best things of the evening - has, as
Sellars perceived, music of compelling power and beauty.
While one of the arias that did catch on, "Angels ever bright
and fair, Take, O take, me to your care" is reserved for the title
role (here sung by the soprano Rosemary Joshua), almost all the
most affecting vocal music is shared between two alto roles:
Theodora's soldier fellow-Christian, Didymus, and her supporter and
Here both roles were taken by marvellous singers. The mezzo
Sarah Connolly, gloriously on form, was utterly melting in
everything she sang - not least the Act II aria, 'Thou art the
light, the life, the way", a sensationally moving composition; her
duet with Ms Joshua also shone.
Her rival for the honours here was the countertenor Tim Mead:
always a sensitive, though once perhaps too recessive, voice. Yet,
now, every time he sings, one is on one's mettle: it has become a
thrilling sound, delivered with a panache and certainty to match
any of his rivals. Mead's growth and transformation contributed
hugely to the success of the oratorio: "Kind heaven, if virtue be
thy care" at the end of Act I, with attractively skedaddling
violins, was an aria of breathtaking beauty, clarity and precision:
the moment when Handel makes Didymus determine, if necessary, to
die for his Christian faith.
AT SYMPHONY HALL, a stone's throw away, the conductor Edward
Gardner and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, of which he
is Principal Guest Conductor, rounded off their Mendelssohn series
(including a superbly spacious Reformation Symphony, now
recorded on CHSA 5132, with the composer's Second Symphony,
Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise.
The singing of the CBSO Chorus, one of the most polished in the
land, was predictably fine, although so was that of the CBSO Youth
Chorus who performed two rare Mendelssohn Latin motets - the
second, Surrexit Pastor Bonus, quite substantial, with
some enchanting solo, duet, and quartet singing.
But while the key to everything was the orchestra under
Gardner's watchful and pleasingly unexaggerated beat - the results
were riveting, the pacings beautifully thought through and the
various desks meticulously together - and two sisters, Sophie and
Mary Bevan, matched each other perfectly in "I waited for the
Lord", the hero of this Lobgesang was the tenor Benjamin
Hulett, whose handling of recitative was as perfect as his dynamic
role in the dramatic "The sorrows of death" ("Watchman, will the
night soon pass?"), from Isaiah 21. J. Alfred Novello's
19th-century translation - he had succeeded to the helm of the
family music-publishing firm in 1829, aged just 19 - still stands
up as well as ever.