'Theodora' at the London Handel Festival,
enjoyed by ROBERT HUGILL
This year's London Handel Festival opened on 23 February 2009, Handel's birthday, with a performance of Theodora, his penultimate oratorio; and the festival will finish on 14 April 2009 (the 250th Anniversary of his death) with a performance of Jephtha, his final oratorio.
Theodora is the only one of Handel's oratorios on religious subjects not to use a bible story as its basis. Instead the Revd Thomas Morrell created a libretto based on a novel by the scientist Robert Boyle; though the martyrdom of Theodora in Antioch had also been the subject of a Corneille play. The libretto is one of the strongest that Morrell provided for Handel; it keeps the moralising down to a minimum and provides a sequence of very strong situations suitable for Handel's dramatic talents.
The London Handel Festival performed the oratorio uncut, which is itself relatively unusual. This meant that the running time was around three hours thirty minutes with just one interval. But such was the strength of the performance under Lawrence Cummings' direction, that you never felt the time passing even in the relatively uncomfortable environs of St George's Church, Hannover Square. The church was Handel's parish church and so is a very apposite place for concerts of his music. Except that pews are not comfortable concert seats, sight lines are not always ideal and the performance space keeps the number of performers down.
Lawrence Cummings and the London Handel Orchestra and Choir fielded an orchestra of twenty-four and a choir of eighteen; not large numbers for a work of this size but both groups punched above their weight and the performance never felt undernourished, in fact in the louder numbers they easily filled St George's with glorious noise.
The title role was taken by Erica Eloff, a South African born soprano who won the Festival's Handel Singing Competition in 2008. One of the delights of the Festival is that each year they have a singing competition and then the winners appear in the following year's Festival. Eloff was quite a find, tall and attractive, she has a very striking stage presence. Technically her Theodora could not be faulted and she produces a rich but lyrical voice in an admirably focussed manner. Her Theodora was no under-dog but quite a strong personality, though still demure. Eloff had the ability to make Theodora's imprisonment and submission to fate both musical and interesting. The problem with the oratorio is that it is fatally easy for a pale, submissive Theodora to be overshadowed by a strong Irene. But here, Eloff's submission to fate was anything but pale and uninteresting.
Irene, the leader of the Antioch Christians was played by Susan Bickley who has recorded the role under Paul McCreesh. Having last experienced Theodora in a staged production, at first I found Bickley's Irene rather understated, though gloriously sung. But as the sequence of glorious arias unfolded, Bickley seemed to grow in stature. It helps that her delivery is quite trenchant, so that Irene becomes quite a direct person, albeit one with quite a poetic turn of mind.
Of the men, the roles of Valens, the Roman President of Antioch, and Septimus, the Roman soldier friend of Didymus, are both ones which can outweigh their welcome if not performed with care. Valens really has only one thing to do: thunder, and Lisandro Abadie did this brilliantly. Abadie is a young singer from Buenos Aires who trained in Switzerland (with Evelyn Tubb amongst others). His way with Handel is brilliant and his English diction is exemplary. He has an attractive, quite grainy baritone voice, but one which has an evenness of delivery and degree of focus which make it ideal for this repertoire. He almost managed to make Valens an interesting character and I am keen to hear more of Abadie in a bigger Handelian role. (He is appearing in Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie at Aix en Provence under William Christie.)
Septimus was sung by Charles Daniels with his customary intelligence and intensity. Septimus does not really move the action on; what he does is comment on it sympathetically. (In Morrell's original libretto he converts at the end, but Handel did not set this.) Daniels convinced us that Septimus really mattered, and kept our attention on Septimus's sequence of arias. I must confess that I found Daniels' vocal delivery a little less than ideal; there was something rather squeezed about his production, but this is a relatively small point when presented with singing which is as musical and as vibrant as this.
Andrew Radley, the counter tenor who took the role of the hero Didymus, is a young singer who has quite an attractive soft grained voice. It is not an immediately heroic sounding instrument, but then Handel's conception of Didymus is not really heroic. He might be a soldier, but Handel's interest is in the young man in love, and in conflict between love/religion and duty. Radley proved an apposite foil to Eloff, making Didymus a quiet but determined young man. Didymus was written for the alto castrato Guadagni (who created the title role in Gluck's Orfeo), though it is not the most technically demanding of Handel's castrato roles. Radley sang with a lovely sense of line and feel for character. Didymus has two duets with Theodora, the lovely 'To thee, thou glorious son of worth' towards the end of Act 2 and their profoundly moving final aria and duet.
Handel provides a number of fine choral opportunities in the piece. Not only does he characterise both the Romans and Christians in separate choruses, but each act finishes with a large scale chorus from the Christians. Amongst these is 'He saw the lovely youth' which he regarded as being one of his finest choruses. The London Handel Choir was on fine form, singing all these with well-focussed tone and flexible phrasing. They easily filled the nave of St George's Church with tone, but could slim the vocal quality down finely as well.
The orchestra under Lawrence Cummings supported everything with neatness and brilliance, proving apt accompanists with Cummings himself providing the harpsichord continuo and Bridget Cunningham the organ continuo. One of the delights of Cummings' approach is that, though his own harpsichord playing is apt to be a little florid, he eschews adding too many varied instruments to the continuo group so that we had no theorbos, no baroque guitars and no harps.
This was a profoundly satisfying and profoundly moving performance. And one which testified to the strong effect Handel's works can make when performed uncut. There are quite a few good things on the menu at this year's festival but they will have to go a long way to beat this fine performance.
Copyright © 24 February 2009
Robert Hugill, London UK