Recorded in 2000
Released in 2003
Theodora: Sophie Daneman
Irene: Juliette Galstian
Septimus: Richard Croft
Dydimus: Daniel Taylor
Valens: Nathan Berg
Messenger: Laurent Slaars
Les Arts Florissants (on period instruments)
Conductor: William Christie
William Christie and his musicians give a manly performance, tender when need be and forceful in musical action when called for—heroic virtues for an oratorio ignored for centuries, its spiritual power misunderstood. Christie grasps the unusual profundity of this work, trickily rooted in abstractions. It deals with Christian virtues, which is heady stuff for an evening’s entertainment, and perhaps the reason for its failure in 1750. Christie exposes Handel’s art of concealing artifice with almost unfailing understanding, and gives to Thomas Morell’s finely crafted libretto an engaging bite and solemnity. His Theodora reveals an outstanding example of theatre of the mind, the genre in which Handel remains supreme.
The overture is crisply played by Les Arts Florissants. The energetic andante and smoothly feminine trio (it is delicate and takes its time) are succeeded by an engagingly trivial courante, all three effectively creating the sound-world inhabited by the Roman governor Valens, sung by Nathan Berg. Berg convinces as a ruler not to be trifled with—he is impatient for the birthday celebrations and a good time. Valens as created by Morell and Handel is no clod, and Berg rightly concentrates on the sense of his words and subsequent actions. The impressive chorus of Les Arts Florissants enjoy the shouts of heathen affirmation and gloating, seeming irredeemably bad. Daniel Taylor’s Didymus, however, strikes an entirely different note, one of calm reflection and pure tone. His voice is a fine aural and moral antithesis to heathen hedonism, conveying spirituality perfectly. Richard Croft impresses as Septimius, singing admirably with scorn at the inscrutable Christian desire to die for a principle. Croft’s interpretation convinces because it is evident from the start that this honourable campaigner isn’t going to compromise a fellow officer.
Into a man’s world of soldiers, torture and brute force, Sophie Daneman’s Theodora introduces an exquisitely brittle soprano, just right for a saint. It is a voice with an unusual vigour in its sweetness. She sings as a woman who can turn male heads (as Valens reminds us towards the end of the drama). As a perfect foil to Theodora, Juliette Galstian’s Irene, in ‘Bane of Virtue’, relishes the priggish dismissal of a human appetite for getting and spending. The chorus ‘Come, mighty Father’ is sung with commendable emphasis on ‘Truth’ and ‘Word’, an attention to verbal detail that also occurs in Galstian’s rendering of the words ‘Truth’, ‘Light’, and the ‘Way’, the very heart of Theodora’s Christian message, and which mark this performance as something special. The final chorus to Part 1 is as fine an interpretation of a Handel chorus as we are ever likely to hear. It is restrained in pace and vitality, and its classical simplicity is ineffably moving.
Part 2 opens with rousing heathen bucolic noises. We get to hear the boozy hiccups on “Reign” in ‘Queen of Summer’, and Valens’s intoxication sounds genuine, with Berg carousing yet possessing sufficient intellectual clarity to offer clemency. Theodora’s loneliness and Handel’s oh-so subtle suggestion of God’s presence are communicated with particular finesse by the strings. Taylor sings of ‘Deeds of Kindness’ (I dislike his decorations) with haunting expression, and with special alertness to the words in the B sections of his airs. Daneman is hauntingly convincing in her chilling request for Didymus to kill her, which provokes Taylor into almost palpable distaste. There is no finer version on disc of the ensuing duet ‘To thee, thou glorious’. Yet the final chorus of Part 2 ‘He saw the lovely Youth’ surprisingly lacks emotional engagement; it fails to move.
Part 3 can drag in unsure hands. There is no spectacle and no action. Christie and his musicians endow Part 3 with such sympathy that it invigorates this extraordinary and timeless drama. ‘Blest be the Hand’ rings true as a chorus of believers clamouring for God’s aid as death threatens. ‘From Virtue springs’ gets the finest outing I have heard. The pace is unhurried, the strings and voice are in pleasing unity as Septimius senses an innate susceptibility to Christian example. Croft’s interpretation is just and grateful. With its telling staccatos, the chorus ‘How strange their Ends’ lets us hear heathen stupefaction as Christians prepare for martyrdom. The larghetto is lovely. And then there is that final chorus, ‘O Love Divine’, which Christie manages with exemplary aplomb. It is perfect in its execution, spiritually penetrating and ingratiating.
There are a few quibbles. Oboes appear without Handel’s authority in the ritornello to ‘Angels, ever bright’. The organ and theorbo intrude into recitatives and airs, sidelining the harpsichord. (It is hard to envisage Handel sitting on his hands during a performance while a lutenist twanged away.) But the extra sounds are not too intrusive; the strengthening of the first violin line by recorders on occasion is just about acceptable. We get the recitative version of ‘Ye Ministers of Justice’, rather than the air for an exasperated Valens, which is fine. By contrast to the few blemishes, the glories of this recording are the slow movements. ‘Go, gen’rous, pious Youth’ is emotionally wrenching, and the final chorus—a yardstick of performance quality in any Theodora—is a poignant, wonder-full elegy, spine-tingling in its restraint and intensity, an expertly controlled meditation on the ultimate altruistic gift.
© Les Robarts - August 2003
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