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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685-1759)
Theodora HWV 68
Theodora, Sophie Daneman
Didymus, David Taylor
Valens, Nathan Berg
Septimius, Richard Croft
Irene, Juliette Galstein
Messenger, Laurent Slaars
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Rec: May 2000, IRCAM, Paris, France.
ERATO 0927 43181-2 [178.10]


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Written in the summer of 1749, Theodora was premiered in London at Covent Garden Theatre on 16 March 1750. This work, which Handel considered his finest oratorio, was a failure at first. Handel said bitterly that the hall was so empty that "there was room enough to dance there." Part of this failure could be explained by the earthquake that hit London in February of the same year and caused the upper classes to flee the city, but another possibility is that the subject matter of the oratorio - the rebellion of a woman against the power of the state - was a bit ahead of its time.

William Christie's orchestra is as brilliant and petulant as always. The instrumental balance is ideal, and gives an impression of homogeneity and equilibrium, and the choir is always transparent and bright.

Countertenor David Taylor is a disappointment. He is weak and trembly, and frequently his notes are slightly imperfect. This is all the more disappointing because Christie conducted Theodora at Glyndebourne, of which a video exists, with David Daniels, who is riveting. An addition, the other main competitor on disc - the recording by Paul McCreesh - features the magnificent Robin Blaze in this role. Taylor uses too much vibrato for my tastes, and he stumbles in some of the more difficult passages, such as the long aria in the second scene The rapture'd soul defies the sword.

Soprano Juliette Galstein is a revelation - she has a beautifully pure voice, and can be both subtle and intense, though, again, there's a bit too much vibrato that distracts from her overall sound. Soprano Sophie Daneman shows her fine singing here, but again, vibrato, vibrato, vibrato. Even on brief notes, at time, which would sound much better without vibrato, she succumbs to the temptation, whereas sometimes - such as in the aria Angels, ever bright and fair - her long notes are crystal-clear. Bass Richard Croft - an alumnus of Christie's Glyndebourne production - gives a fine performance, and in this work the bass has an important role with many attractive arias.

You've certainly understood that I don't like vibrato. That's not entirely true; vibrato as an ornament is fine, but when singers of this quality use it so often it gets plain annoying. It's not that they are not capable of singing without it; it's just that, for some reason, they feel it is necessary. While the orchestra plays without vibrato - in the style of Handel's time - why can't the singers do so as well? David Taylor gives a perfect example of ornamental use of vibrato in the opening notes of Kind Heav'n, if virtue be thy care, where he uses tasteful vibrato in his long, drawn-out notes. But as he goes on in the song, he tries to fit as many vibrations as he can in some of the shorter notes.

But when you reach the final chorus, you cannot but be moved by the three hours of music that went before. The sum of this exceeds the parts, and, while there are some weaknesses in the soloists, they end up coming together in an exemplary fashion, and providing a delightful recording. While the McCreesh recording may be better - better sound, more subtle orchestral playing, and Robin Blaze - this new set stands up well to the competition.

Kirk McElhearn

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