United States Handel, Theodora: Soloists, The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Trinity Baroque Orchestra / Avi Stein (conductor). Venetian Theater, Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, Katonah, NY, 31.7.2022. (RP)
Theodora – Marie-Eve Munger
Didymus – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Irene – Daniela Mack
Septimius – Alek Shrader
Valens – Tyler Duncan
It was a fine afternoon to enjoy Handel’s Theodora at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts’ open-air Venetian Theater. Although warm, it was nowhere near as hot and steamy as it had been just a few days earlier. Even with the fine forces that Caramoor had gathered for this performance plus an endless stream of beautiful Handel melodies, three hours would have been an endurance test if it had been any hotter.
Caramoor was the home of Walter Tower and Lucie Bigelow Rosen, which they filled with treasures from their European travels. Born in Berlin, Walter Tower immigrated with his family to New York as a child and later became a successful banker. Lucie Rosen was from a socially prominent New York family with interests in fashion, dance, visual arts and music. She was an early devotee of electronic music, long before it became popular.
The Rosen’s home opened to the public in 1971, three years after Lucie Rosen’s death. The Venetian Theater, where this performance of Theodora took place, opened in 1958. It was one of her early efforts to make Caramoor more available to the public after the death of her husband.
Handel composed Theodora in one month during the summer of 1749, and it premiered at Covent Garden during Lent of the following year. The oratorio is based on the story of Theodora, an early Christian martyr who lived in the city of Antioch, and her Roman lover, Didymus, who had secretly converted to Christianity and shared her fate.
The virtuous young woman refused to pay homage to the Roman gods in honor of the Emperor Diocletian’s birthday, which amounted to treason. Something worse than death, however, awaited Theodora: she was sentenced to work as a prostitute in the Temple of Venus. Didymus helped her to escape, but they were captured and both sentenced to death.
Neither the storyline nor the music of Theodora found favor with the London public in Handel’s time. The tale of a virgin martyr and saint did not sit well with Protestant sensibilities, and the score has little of the grandeur and triumph that they had come to expect from Handel. He, however, maintained that Theodora was his favorite oratorio and considered the chorus ‘He saw the lovely youth’ to be far superior to the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. For over 250 years, audiences have differed with him on that.
The glamorous, imperious soprano Marie-Eve Munger perhaps didn’t quite look the part of a pious martyr, but her exquisite singing all but transported one to heaven. Munger’s sound shimmered as she sang the lovely, often poignant, arias that Handel composed for Theodora. The expressiveness of her singing was enhanced through the graceful ornamentation with which she adorned the reprises of the melodies in the da capo arias.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo brought to Didymus the qualities – dramatic urgency, a unique sound and seamless lyricism – that have made him one of today’s most compelling singers. The surprise was that Munger and Costanzo, so dissimilar in temperament and voice, were as one in their duets together.
As Irene, Theodora’s confidant and spiritual guide, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack evoked the vocal grandeur of the golden age of oratorio singer with her rich voice. There was nothing fusty or mannered about Mack whatsoever – she just sang beautifully. Her ‘Lord, to Thee each night and day’ was outstanding.
Tenor Alek Shrader brought similar stylistic and vocal authenticity to Septimius, who assists Theodora and Didymus in their futile escape. Baritone Tyler Duncan as Valens, the Roman governor of Antioch, relished playing the villain who insists that Theodora be punished for refusing to obey his orders. Duncan’s enunciation was exemplary: every rolled ‘r’ dripped with evil.
Avi Stein led Trinity’s Baroque Orchestra and Choir and the exceptional quintet of singers in a stylistically sure and sensitively performed performance. Stein is the associate organist and chorus master at Trinity Wall Street and also on the faculty of Juilliard. Trinity’s orchestra is among the finest of New York’s period instrument ensembles, while its chorus excels in the entire canon of Western choral music.
More and more often, Theodora is being staged as an opera. This performance, so musically rewarding and dramatically compelling, did make one wonder why.