HANDEL (1685-1759) Theodora (1750)
Alexander (soprano) - Theodora, a Christian of noble birth; Jochen
Kowalski (counter-tenor) - Didymus, a Roman officer, converted by
Theodora; Jard van Nes (contralto) - Irene, a Christian; Hans Peter
Blochwitz (tenor) - Septimius, a Roman officer, Didymus' friend;
Anton Scharinger (bass) - Valens, President of Antioch; Alois Glaßner
(tenor) - Messenger; Herbert Tachezi (harpsichord; organ), Arnold
Schoenberg Chor, Concentus musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Großer Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 6 March 1990, live
TELDEC DAS ALTE WERK 2564 69056-4 [64:43 + 68:00]
Theodora was Handel's last oratorio but one. He composed this large-scale work in just over a month in the summer of 1749 and it was premiered in March the following year in the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Only Jephtha was to follow two years later. Handel valued Theodora very highly and stated that the chorus that ends act II, He saw the lovely youth, was the favourite among his own compositions.
Thomas Morell's libretto tells the story of Theodora, a Christian woman of noble origin, who lives in Antioch, which is ruled by the Roman governor Valens. On the Emperor's name-day he orders the people of Antioch to celebrate in accordance with the pagan traditions. When Theodora refuses Valens threatens her with prison and death. The Roman officer Didymus, who has been converted to Christianity by Theodora and is in love with her, tries to make Valens understand and says 'Ought we not to leave the free-born mind of man still ever free?' But Valens won't listen, Theodora is thrown into prison. Didymus and his friend Septimius tries to save her and Didymus takes her place in prison. But this is discovered and both are sentenced to death.
The oratorio has a message of humanity and there are many numbers that breathe nobility and warmth but there is also a fair amount of lively and dramatic music and Valens is portrayed as cruel and unrelenting. There are no less than eleven choruses, most of them rather short but Go, gen'rous pious youth and He saw the lonely youth are substantial pieces. As always he writes gratefully for the solo voices and Theodora's Angels, ever bright and fair is among his finest arias. So is also Irene's Lord to thee. The final chorus Oh love divine is truly beautiful.
The playing of the Concentus musicus is assured, in intimate music as well as more overtly rhythmic sections. Blest be the hand swings unabashedly and there as well as elsewhere the Arnold Schoenberg Chor lives up to their reputation. Harnoncourt has sometimes been accused of unorthodox tempos but to me they seem fully adequate. Let me hasten to add though that I have not had access to other recordings of this work for comparison.
The soloists are not generally baroque specialists but all of them are convincing in their own right. Roberta Alexander in the crucial role of Theodora has clear and bright soprano, rather girlish in tone and skilfully used and she sings with fine sense for nuances. Jard van Nes on the other hand has a grand, majestic contralto, slightly uneven, but she sings with conviction and emphasis. Anton Scharinger, one of Harnoncourt's favourite singers, has all the power and venom needed for the evil governor and in the first act confrontations with Didymus Jochen Kowalski tends to pale by his side. On his own Kowalski though shows his prowess in coloratura and dramatic intensity, not least in the aria The raptur'd soul. Hans Peter Blockwitz's unforced and elegant singing makes him a splendid Septimius though his long aria in act I Descend, kind pity is hardly one of Handel's most inspired pieces.
I have no complaints about the recorded sound and there is very little that tells us that this is in fact a live recording. There are no texts and translations enclosed but they can be downloaded.
Theodora is one of Handel's lesser known oratorios and may not be as immediately appealing as some of his earlier efforts: Samson, Saul, Israel in Egypt and Messiah but it is definitely worth anyone's acquaintance, especially at its new competitive price. Little known Handel has considerable merits.
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