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Handel - Theodora

Le Concert d'Astree / Emmanuelle Haim - conductor

The Barbican Hall 17 October 2006

 

Valens Matthew Rose

Didymus Stephen Wallace

Septimus Paul Agnew

Theodora Geraldine McGreevy

Irene Sophie von Otter

 

Theodora is described as a dramatic oratorio which unusually is not based not on a biblical source, but documents the persecution of Christians in 4 th century Antioch . The words of Thomas Morell's verse libretto (surtitles were provided) sound quaint at times to modern ears but he weaves a stirring and cohesive story, and on this occasion we were treated to a virtually un-cut performance.

 

It begins at a leisurely pace with the 80 minute first part serving to set the scene and allow each of the protagonists to be introduced and characterised. First Valens, the presiding ruler of Antioch proclaiming that anyone who fails to participate in the traditional worship of the Roman gods on the occasion of the emperor's birthday will be subject to severe punishment. Matthew Rose had both the commanding presence and sonorous bass to invest this command with menace.

 

Next Didymus, a closet Christian amongst the Romans, in love with Theodora, and pleading for mercy on the grounds that religious difference does not automatically imply sedition to the state. Counter-tenor Stephen Wallace floated some extremely delicate high phrases, but his voice lacked sufficient weight (exacerbated by a tendency to dip his head) to really project his words.

 

Septimus is his fellow officer charged with enforcing the decree. Whilst being sympathetic to the arguments raised by Didymus, his duty to the rule of law comes uppermost. This was compassionately sung by Paul Agnew, with the restrained gestures to bring out the equivocal nature of the role.

 

Irene is simply described as a Christian, but in practice she is the charismatic focus who voices the Christian response to the events that surround them. Anne Sophie von Otter, with her fair hair set of by a simple purple dress had both the stage presence and warmth of voice to carry this part with complete conviction.

 

Geraldine McGreevy had the bearing of a princess, carried through to the voice, resolute in her determination to choose death rather accept prostitution and suppliant in her humility to accept the will of god.

 

Didymus persuades him to let him take her place, but when he is discovered Theodora immediately comes out of hiding, and in a long and moving section each demands to die in place of the other. Only Valens remains unmoved, and he sends them both to their death rejoicing.

 

The strong chorus were supportive of the action throughout with just the subtlest of changes to mirror of their shift between Romans and Christians.

 

Emmanuelle Haim is an almost balletic conductor in the energetic overture amply demonstrating just how many arm muscles a conductor uses. Her orchestra responded well, and mention should also be made of Violaine Cochard skilfully managing three keyboards with her harpsichord balanced somewhat precariously on top of an organ.

 

Serena Fenwick

© Peter Grahame Woolf