Handel’s Theodora: a Simply Terrific Evening

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel Theodora, HWV68 (1750) Soloists, Choir of Trinity Wall Street, The English Concert, Harry Bickett (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 8.2.2014. (CC)

Theodora – Rosemary Joshua
Irene – Sarah Connelly
Didymus -Tim Mead
Valens – Neal Davies
Septimus – Kurt Streit

Although there is still some way to go before the end of the season, right now this concert sits right at the top of my Concert of the Year list. Handel’s Theodora is not his most popular score, but it deserves to be. A Glyndebourne production by Peter Sellars made the piece many friends, and certainly the present performance will have continued the trend.

The evening consisted of one marvel of invention following another. The English Concert was on top form under Harry Bickett, while the New York Choir of Trinity Wall Street added real force to proceedings, their sound sonorous and deep. This was as magnificent a choral sound as one could hope to encounter.

The story is set in fourth-century Antioch. The governor, Valens, orders that all shall make sacrifice to Venus and Flora; it is Didymus, who is a secret Christian, that asks that not everyone is forced to do this. Also Christian is Theodora herself, who is punished by enforced prostitution – which she sees as worse than death itself. It is Didymus who comes to rescue her, in disguise, in the second act. The third and final act sees Theodora’s delight in her return to her Christian home tempered by the news of Didymus’ capture. She offers herself to Valens in the place of Didymus. No happy clemency here – both are slaughtered.

It would be difficult to imagine an orchestra more involved than the English Concert. The technical excellence was almost unbelievable, but it was the pureness of utterance that impressed the most as if this was simply how the score had to be. There was a rightness to every single aria, every chorus. The hours – and there were several – sped by.

The cast was never less than good – and mostly was excellent. Neal Davies, who kicked things off as a walking ball of malevolence, basically spat out Valens’ aria, “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire” with maximum authority. His assumption of the part was a masterclass in Handelian bass singing. Balancing him in the male voices was counter-tenor Tim Mead’s Didymus. Here was the sort of counter-tenor one only dreams about: laser-like pitching and tone, yet not uncomfortably acid sounding and capable of huge emotion. His “The Raptur’ed Soul defies the Sword” injected huge lyricism into the highly melismatic vocal lines. But the part of Didymus comes into its own in the second act and Mead rose magnificently to the challenge, with the aria, “Sweet rose and lilly” perhaps demonstrating his art at its height.

Andrew Kennedy had been booked to song the part of Septimus, Valens’ messenger who gets converted to Christianity. The replacement was none other than Kurt Streit, in fine voice at the age of 54, pure and stylish of delivery.

As the titular heroine, Rosemary Joshua was superbly in character and affecting. Handel’s scoring of the first act “Fond, flatt’ring World, adieu!” is sparse and daring; Joshua’s blanched unaccompanied lines matched the atmosphere perfectly. Yet, somehow, she was not only matched but eclipsed by her Irene, the magnificent Sarah Connelly, whose touching “As with rosy steps the morn” was arguably the highlight of the entire evening. The duet with Didymus, “To thee, thou glorious son of worth” provided a moment of magic, of true communication between the characters as their lines interlinked and reacted to each other. It is a measure of the quality of this piece that Handel follows it shortly afterwards with a chorus of the utmost poignancy, “He saw the lovely youth”, here performed with an underlying fragility that was truly moving.

Connelly was, in fact, mesmeric in everything she touched. She has a stage presence of the utmost magnificence, and a voice to match. It felt only right that she opened the final act with an aria -actually a prayer – that showed off her expressivity perfectly, “Lord, to thee, each night and day”. The aria “Now scenes of joy come crowding on”, which despite initial appearances is lachrymose, was unbearably touching thanks to Connelly’s innate musicality and beautiful phrasing.

A simply terrific evening.

Colin Clarke