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George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1757)
Theodora, HWV 68, oratorio in three acts, text by Thomas Morell (1750) [207.00]
Theodora - Dawn Upshaw
Didymus - David Daniels
Valens - Frode Olsen
Septimus - Richard Croft
Irene - Lorraine Hunt [Lieberson]
Keyboard continuo, Jonathan Hinden;
Cello continuo, Susan Sheppard;
Theorbo continuo, Elizabeth Kenny.
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/William Christie
Stage Director and video direction, Peter Sellars.
Sets, George Tsypin; Costumes, Duná Ramicová
Recorded at the Glyndebourne auditorium, East Sussex, England, 1996.
Brief synopsis and track list in English. On-screen menus in English.
Subtitles in English, Français, Deutsch.
Format DVD-9, NTSC 4:3 colour. Region code 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Dolby digital 2.0 stereo.
Region 1 version available on Kultur video, ASIN# B00023BN4M
WARNER MUSIC VISION 0630-15481-2 [207.00]

Comparison Recordings of Handel, Theodora:

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Ireneís recitatives and arias only)Avie AV0030 SACD

This DVD recording is an irritating array of plusses and minuses

First, the music. The work was until recently rarely performed. It seems to give the lie to the common idea of Handel being fully appreciated in his lifetime, for Theodora work was his biggest public failure. That said, among his musically aware friends at the time it was much appreciated, and is today recognised as one of his finest achievements. Being an oratorio and not an opera it is on a serious subject and has no drama, being a succession of arias which tie into one another to tell a story.

This is a stupendous, enchanting, engrossing performance. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect presentation of the music. Every member of the cast is in excellent voice and a superb singing actor. The instrumentalists are likewise excellent and everyone works together flawlessly. But...

The staging is problematical. When Peter Sellars first did Mozartís Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni in New York the startling but insightful result was generally appreciated as showing some previously unseen but valid aspects of both works. In time he has done other operas with varying reports of success. In scene 1 of this staging the President (the word is original in the libretto) Valens of Antioch is portrayed as the President of the United States as shown by the insignia on the uniforms of his bodyguards. He is cheered by a chorus of Bad Americans who wear garishly coloured sloppy clothes, all wave cans of diet soft drinks, and cheer mightily the gory death of any Christians who decline to celebrate the Emperorís upcoming birthday with sacrifices in the Pagan temples. Didymus, one of the soldiers, is secretly a convert to Christianity and tries to prevent the others from carrying out the order, but is restrained, threatened and forced into going along, however reluctantly.

The President (Frode Olsen) delivers his Act II recitative in a drunken slur while waving a beer can. He sobers up a little for his aria, and the real excitement in this scene is the chorus of Bad Americans mauling the chorus of Good Americans, but does music deserve to be treated like this?

A problem: in the US an orange jump-suit does not denote a military policeman but an escaped prisoner, the current equivalent of the old black and white stripes. Military policemen more often wear black or dark blue or green. This production, going on the stage in 1996 was probably in preparation several years earlier and the political/religious scene in the US has changed 180į for now it is the Christian President and the Christians who want to kill the Pagans and/or force them to worship in government tax-supported Christian churches! It is the Christians who are rich and screaming for blood and the Pagans who lead simple economically and environmentally responsible lives. Even more of a problem for U.S. audiences is the idea of a big burly, handsome, masculine man with a high voice. The highest permitted masculine U.S. voice is the Dwight Eisenhower/John Wayne lipless tenor twang. Anything higher is ludicrous and unacceptable. A lead character dressed like a convict and singing like a woman is distinctly un-American and could lead to laughter and audience walk-out, at the worst. At the best it simply exaggerates the absurdity of the scenario which is already a little absurd. The Presidentís implied heart attack in the opening scene and his miraculous resurrection after the application of high-tech medicine, nowhere justified by either the text or the music, is played for laughs and in my opinion gets things going in exactly the wrong direction.

From here on we move to the Good Americans who are simply pious and dressed in modest clothes and who reject "prosperity" (the word is original in the libretto), most especially Theodora, very beautifully sung by American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who removes her modest jewellery in the course of an aria in which she forswears all earthly glamour and dedicates her life to simple faith. She is supported in her resolve by Irene, sung with overwhelming power and beauty by the magnificent Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

But, sure enough, thereís dirty work afoot. The soldiers rush in and suppress the meeting, seizing Theodora as an example and condemn her to be taken to the Temple of Venus (no doubt in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City) to be forced to work as a divine prostitute (the "fate worse than death" in the libretto) for a time before she is killed. Didymus tries to rescue her, and after much struggle they are both executed, on stage, after singing a duet pledging eternal love. In this performance, the Bad Americans sing the final Christian chorus, hinting that perhaps the double sacrifice has converted them. Future echoes of Berlioz and Verdi!

The packaging on this European issue is awful. Not only do we not get a libretto, we donít even get an aria list, only a chapter list which doesnít correspond with the main musical selections but roughly corresponds to every other musical selection. Fortunately, some Good Americans at Stanford University have provided a public domain libretto for this public domain work:

Even though the playing time is the same, which surely means there arenít any extra goodies on the disk, the cover on the U.S. region 1 edition is different, but I have no way of knowing whether the insides of the cover booklet are any better than this European edition. There is a very brief synopsis and a few comments on the history of the work and one small production still on the cover, which is otherwise an ugly shade of hot pink, all in English only, even though this disk is being sold everywhere in the world except in the USA. Go figure.

"This disk is copy protected" is marked on the sleeve, and, purely for the sake of science, I tried to open it with one of the popular DVD "backup" programs, and, sure enough, the backup failed. Newer software may not be so easily defeated. I experienced no difficulty in playing this disk, nor was there any apparent degradation in sound or picture quality.

The SACD solo recital disk by Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson featuring her part from Theodora is slightly clearer and more intensely sung since she is not distracted by the motions and gestures of the staging, which, on the other hand, add power and immediacy to her singing. The few years elapsing have if anything helped her voice and enriched her performance. After youíve enjoyed the DVD, you may want to buy that one, too.

Sound recording quality is full range, clear, and dynamic, with a strong forward focus when played in surround sound. There is no audience noise ó perhaps no audience present during the recording ó the applause and curtain calls at the end possibly dubbed in from another, live, performance. The very clear picture is original video, not film; the presumed PAL/NTSC conversion may be responsible for some slight colour barring and jumping during rapid movement, but you wonít notice that unless youíre really looking for it, youíll be too absorbed in this magnificent performance. But keep in mind that this is a long, solemn, sombre, depressing show; best watch it in sections and when youíre feeling strong.

Paul Shoemaker

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