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Light and Sprightly

Handel's 'Theodora', reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


The reputation of Handel's Theodora was raised immeasurably by Peter Sellars' Glyndebourne staging of the work. Tuesday night's concert performance [17 October 2006], given by Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée Orchestra and Chorus at London's Barbican Hall, was dedicated to the memory of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who appeared as Irene in Sellars' production.

In fact, Handel did not write Theodora to be staged, even if, in his sense, drama means that it is, by and large, eminently stageable. Emmanuelle Haïm took a dramatic approach to the work, giving it a strong dramatic impetus. This helped immeasurably in a work that is quite expansive and takes its time over things (three acts of 80, 60 and 50 minutes each).

Except for a few devotees, the work was not popular in Handel's lifetime. Its exploration of the piety and religious intensity of Theodora herself is hardly the stuff of blockbuster hits. To bring the work off requires more than simple dramatic impetus from the conductor -- it requires a pair of female leads who can convince. In this, Haïm was blessed with two superb interpreters, Geraldine McGreevy as Theodora and Anne Sofie von Otter as Irene, the leader of the Antioch Christians. McGreevy has recently started moving into heavier roles, but you could hardly tell from her voice. This remains rich and vibrant but retains a good sense of line, her way with the Handelian fioriture was excellent. She also convinced you of her religious intensity, without ever overdoing things.

Von Otter on the other hand created a very dramatic character, her Irene was very much a doer. Handel gives as much dramatic weight to Irene as to Theodora and Von Otter allowed us to appreciate every moment of it. Perhaps Von Otter's voice is beginning to give hints of age and is not as ideal in baroque music as it was, but late Handelian oratorio is less about Italianate virtuosity than expressiveness, and in this, Von Otter excels.

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Copyright © 19 October 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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