United Kingdom Handel, Theodora: Soloists and Chorus of RNCM Opera Orchestra / Roger Hamilton (conductor), Opera Theatre , Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 24.3.2017. (RJF)
Valens – James Berry
Didymus – Kieron-Connor Valentine
Septimius – Matthew Palfreyman
Theodora – Alexandra Lowe
Irene – Rhiain Taylor
Messenger – Michael Gibson
Director – John Ramster
Set and Costume Designer – Bridget Kimak
Lighting Designer – Jake Wiltshire
Chorus Master – Kevin Thraves
As one of the UK’s leading music conservatoires, Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music has a distinguished list of alumni across the range of instrumental and vocal music. When one mentions the latter very often the focus is on opera. Not all those leaving the college either go into opera or become international stars in their field. However, all will be prepared for some level of employment in their chosen field. The School of Opera and Vocal Studies has launched the career of many opera stars as well as members of the professional choruses of our national and regional companies. However, one of the alternative, or even parallel career for singers can be in Oratorio, think Handel’s Messiah and the number of performances it gets in a year. Many of these are not staged in the sense of being acted out as well as sung. Those of Handel, however, have often been seen as appropriate for staging, Buxton Festival is an example where the composer’s Oratorios have been staged in recent years, such as Saul in 2011(review), Jeptha in 2012 (review) along with the earlier Tamerlano, intended for the stage, in 2016 (review). With imaginative staging, as here by John Ramster the static nature of the works can become more alive and meaningful.
When it comes to staging an oratorio concerning Antioch, Syria in the Roman period, the choice is often updating, as was the case here although not without the odd Roman soldier in period type uniform with the emblem SPQR just to make sure we understood. It largely worked until the last scene where the Christian Theodora, and her lover, are given one shot in the head by a noiseless pistol and whose spirits have then to arise and walk off!! The set comprised a large cage, not unlike a large-scale birdcage, whose size and position could be varied, simple and effective.
The singing was of a general high quality to match the acting and characterisation on display. As the eponymous Theodora, Alexandra Lowe, who I admired in the recent Elizabeth Harwood Award Competition, was outstanding. Blessed with height and presence, she characterized the role in her acting and quality of vocal expression in a well thought out manner. I shall watch out for what I expect to be a promising career with interest. Her singing and acting was matched by the Welsh counter tenor Kieron-Connor Valentine who sang with unusual vocal strength and evenness for his voice type, characterizing well, and acting with commitment and sincerity. The latter skills were also in evidence in James Berry’s performance in the role of Valens, whether as the sadistic President or roistering partygoer. As a Christian leader Irene, lyric soprano Rhiain Taylor sang with clear tones, excellent diction and intonation, to create a meaningful part; her experience in oratorio shone through. In the tenor role of Septimius, Matthew Palfreyman is perhaps more a work in progress.
The orchestra and chorus played a full, part in the proceedings under Roger Hamilton’s baton; the latter well drilled by Kevin Thraves. Like all these late Handel oratorios the composer wrote to an English libretto, in this case by Thomas Morel. Whilst it is important for the students to learn to cleanly project the words it is not that easy and sometimes the audience was left adrift of the details of the plot, titles would have been a help in such an obscure work.
Robert J Farr