Theodora (Video)
~ HWV 68 ~

Kultur D2099
(DVD - Region 1 encoding)

Warner Vision / NVC Arts
(DVD - Regions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 encoding)

Theodora: Dawn Upshaw, soprano
Didymus: David Daniels, countertenor
Irene: Lorraine Hunt, mezzo-soprano
Septimus: Richard Croft, tenor
Valens: Frode Olsen, bass

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (on period instruments)
Conductor: Willam Christie
Artistic Director: Peter Sellars

Recorded live at the 1996 Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Reissue of the VHS release.










Here is a chance to purchase a record of one of the finest stagings of ‘opera’ in the late twentieth century. Without a doubt, Theodora at Glyndebourne was an astonishing success: the critics raved, it was a sell-out, and it won many converts to Handel as a dramatic composer of the first rank. A review of William Christie’s musical interpretation of this oratorio is already on (albeit with a differ cast), so this review considers visual presentation. First, the challenges. What Sellars has chosen to stage is essentially unstageable. Where else in music is there a piece that concerns itself with powerful people demanding obedience to the State and how other people, through their actions, demonstrate that private conscience and belief cannot be subordinated to secular authority? This all sounds unpromising drama. Morell and Handel between them produced a flawless work of art, and this staging, though contrary to the character of unstaged oratorio, is a theatrical triumph because it is constantly true to its spirit.

Secondly, the solutions. It is an interesting artistic endeavour for a director of the stage version of a drama to direct it for video. He cannot hope to capture the total visual spectacle he arranged for the theatre audience because he cannot give a view of the whole stage and its contents, conductor, players, and audience. Instead, we are given exactly what the director wants his video audience to see. He chooses either long-shots or following-shots for us to get a sense of the whole, medium-close-ups for groups, or close-ups of individuals at moments of intensity; we get broader views of the chorus when they take over from the soloists. This director is rightly self-indulgent, selecting his favourite moments for sustained visual concentration. Sellars avoids those details we involuntarily see when a chorus member scratches her nose, a principal moves awkwardly into position, or orchestral players waiting their next turn.

The key aspect of this staging is its simplicity. There are no spectacular effects, no magnificent ensembles or crowd scenes; the scenery is abstract, formed of ‘bottles’ of various sculptural shapes that are moved at private moments in the drama to create new still-lifes. Their ‘fragility’ is a metaphor for political power (in Act 3 Valens has them as a backdrop). Manhandling the scenery creates moments of silent tension in which the audience has to reflect on what is going on and what these shapes and their positioning can possibly mean. Sellars gives us a winning lesson in semiotics, with signs abounding in the gestures, grouping, costumes, ‘scenery’, and the lighting, and with which Sellars masterfully manipulates the video audience. See how his chorus performs in real time, how they enter into shot, miming conversation, moving around and sitting down in the apparently haphazard manner of unstaged people. But when they sing, their verismo acting gives way to choral miming and extravagant gestures. Somehow it all works; it convinces by the force of the commitment of everyone involved. When the camera is on them, no one blinks. To prevent our getting bored, the director observes the commonplace precept of media that eight seconds is the maximum span for each unmoving shot.

A review should not be an essay, so a few details and examples will have to suffice to illustrate the delight that this recording affords. Sellars shows an unerring knack for representing impotent frustration --- from Septimius’s struggles to understand Christian motives, to Valens’s exasperation in Act 3. Though Act 2 begins in over-the-top vein, it sobers up for Theodora’s prison scene, which Sellars stages in a ‘cage’ of light surrounded by darkness, with no theatrical window bars or walls. Theodora circles her ‘cage’ as if a fretful animal. Irene breaks this illusion by singing as if in a dream that Theodora is having. Touches of this forceful kind flourish in this staging. The way that Lorraine Hunt sings Irene is a welcome reminder that Handel often employed singing actresses, no doubt because of their ability to animate their parts and inject into his music a personality that was truthful to the character. In this production the singers, all of them, are excellent actors of the sentiments they sing.

Striking tableaux feast the eyes. ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ is played against a dim stage with Irene centre stage, her gestures accompanying the words. And it must be noted that all actions by all characters in this staging arise from the words, not the music, which is the key to Sellars’s success. There are odd indulgences on the way, though, such as the syringe metaphor, first seen in close-up when morphine is prepared for Valens during his phony heart-attack, and when it reappears to be administered as an analgesic to the doomed Christian couple at the end of the drama.

The finest moments on this video occur at the end. The chorus ‘How strange their ends’ is one of visible stupefaction. We see a demonstration of Spinoza’s lesson that when vanquished by love hate passes into love. The final duet and chorus are emotionally draining --- no participant on stage appears to escape from the same purging of the emotions, and Sellars does not take our eyes away from the scene for a moment. In our painful world the passing of hate into love is an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair --- look at Irene’s face, in the last shot we get of her, as she looks up in hope. Handel, Morell, Sellars, singers, players and theatre designers, Stoicism, Erastianism, the teachings of the early fathers of the Church, anti-Deists, all superbly blend in a masterpiece of music-drama. This DVD Theodora will never be surpassed.

1996 Interview with Peter Sellars

© Les Robarts - September 2004

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