United Kingdom Handel, Theodora: Soloists, Choir of Trinity Wall Street, English Concert / Harry Bicket (conductor), Town Hall, Birmingham, 6.2.2014. (RD)
Theodora: Rosemary Joshua
Irene: Sarah Connolly
Valens: Jonathan Best
Didymus: Tim Mead
You could be forgiven for thinking Theodora was one of Handel’s operas, following Peter Sellars’s famously grisly, lethal injection staging at Glyndebourne a decade ago. But in fact it’s a late oratorio, one of his last half dozen from the final decade of his life, and classes as – apart from the hybrid Messiah – the only religious English oratorio he composed on a specifically Christian (as opposed to Old Testament or mythical) subject.
Theodora was not one of his successes, spurned by the Georgian public with only three performances and a brief revival. Occasionally it’s possible to sense why, but mostly it has its own dramatic thrust, as it outlines a conflict between the Emperor Diocletian’s ruthless 303-4 clampdown, represented by the Antioch (actural history places events in Alexandria) governor Valens (Jonathan Best, a very acceptable if not courageous stand-in for indisposed bass-baritone Neal Davies) and a Christian enclave led by a princess, Theodora (not to be confused with Justinian’s later Empress) and her friend and highly articulate acolyte Irene (Sarah Connolly). The title role was taken by Rosemary Joshua.
A nice irony was that Diocletian’s own wife inclined to Christianity. Though Harry Bicket seems to direct his English Concert with an almost louche hand, suggestive and indeed productive of a legato that seems almost to predate the period instrument revolution – Gardner or Norrington or Christie would surely spurn conducting this almost approximate broad-sweep way – plenty of fine playing resulted perhaps never more so than when the caccia horns joined in and the music acquired a resultant spring. Oboes and recorders excelled, but the most affecting instrumental detail of all is where Handel introduces a transverse flute, for Joshua’s famous prison aria ‘With darkness deep as is my woe’, a moment of almost Gluckian pathos, before the optimistic, finely delivered ‘Oh, that I on wings could rise.’
But before any of these bracing leads, a hugely well-deserved mention for the chorus, the American-based Choir of Trinity Wall Street (this Theodora has already toured the States from West Coast to East, winding up in New York at the Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall).
One noticed something quite remarkable about their early choruses: a phenomenal attentiveness, which made their rhythmic sense as alive as anything in the performance; and a harmonising of timbre (across girls and men but in fact embracing both), which so far from restricting, only underwrote their unanimity of delivery. Then later, brilliant characterisation in the almost clodhopping descending patterns of the lusty Roman Venus- (and Flora-) worshippers – while swapping demeanour effortlessly for the serene Christian choir conclusion – and a capacity for small bits of coloratura, or virtual coloratura, than sometimes capped even the principals.
This is a very good choir indeed, and must be impressive to work with. No wonder Bicket shipped them across for the gigs in Birmingham and tonight (Saturday 8th) at London’s Barbican Hall , plus a final performance in Paris on Monday 10 February at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées before these doughty choristers venture back to the US.
No surprise that Sarah Connolly was absolutely wonderful in the soubrette role of Irene – but for a reason. Her first aria, and indeed much of her input, was sung so peaceably and serenely. ‘As with my steps the morn’ grew from pianissimo to piano, and her reprise was more like quadruple and triple piano. The effect was utterly mesmerising. Connolly, uniquely, has the artistry to effect portamento (‘bane of virtue’), a device she never overuses but which brings maximum affect when she does. Every time she sang was a masterclass; ‘Thou art the light, the life, the way’ was quite sensational; her start to Act III is as moving as Britten’s Lucretia.
In truth, I found Connolly tangibly more affecting here than Joshua in the lead (even in the latter’s lovely, and famous, ‘Angels ever bright and fair’); they latter sounded passionate and indeed desolate but at times less profound or tear-jerking. But when they paired in duet (Act 3: ‘No, no, Irene, no: to life and joy I go’) the outcome was gorgeous.
I went eager to hear Best – an old favourite, especially in operatic roles, if here at short notice a little uncertain on some of the coloratura, and surprisingly (for he can do it) slightly stretched lower down without that basso profundo which Neal Davies has made a speciality; but a splendid characteriser (comic or tragic) who brought authority to the Roman governor, and well settled by his unrelenting Act 3 arias ‘Cease, ye slaves, your fruitless prayer!’ and ‘Ye ministers of justice’; or indeed the wonderful tenor Kurt Streit, who seemed just a little straitjacketed in the role of the sympathetic Roman officer who also converts (his warning ‘Dread the fruits of Christian folly’ had vibrant coloratura; his intriguing Arne-like aria in honour of Venus arguably worked best of all).
But the nicest surprise of all lay in another singer. This was the countertenor Tim Mead, as Theodora’s lover and fellow-Christian Didymus, who in Act 3 pays, like her, with his life. I heard Mead some years back and was underwhelmed: a diffident voice and thin stage presence. Now he dominates, the sound is forceful, confident, often thrilling – the presence attractive and engaging. The tone and timbre are immensely alluring. There is a precision that goes with the assurance. His coloratura was second to none. ‘To thee, thou glorious son of worth’, where he is matched in duet by Theodora as they both brace for the worst, is lovely enough: ‘Streams of pleasure’, the Act 3 equivalent, even more so. But ‘Kind heaven, if virtue be thy care’ at the end of Act I, with attractively skedaddling violins, was an aria of breathtaking beauty, the clarity and precision at this moment when he determined, if necessary, to die matched by some delightful light decoration at the da capo: pure enchantment; Didymus’s big Act 2 aria, ‘Deeds of kindness to display’, was simply out of this world.