George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Theodora - oratorio in three parts, HWV 68 (1749-50)
Theodora, a Christian of noble birth - Christine Schäfer (soprano); Didymus, a Roman officer, converted by, and in love with, Theodora - Bejun Mehta (counter-tenor); Septimius, a Roman officer and friend of Didymus - Joseph Kaiser (tenor); Valens, President of Antioch - Johannes Martin Kränzle (bass); Irene, a Christian - Bernarda Fink (mezzo); Messenger, Ryland Davies (tenor)
James McVinnie (organ)
Salzburg Bachchor/Alois Glaßner
Freiberger Baroque Orchestra/Ivor Bolton
Stage Director: Christof Loy
Sets: Annette Kurz.
Costumes: Ursula Renzenbrink
Video Director: Hannes Rossacher
rec. live, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 16-21 August 2009
Filmed in HD. 16:9. Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DTS.HD MA 5.1 (Blue Ray). DTS 5.1 (DVD)
Subtitles in English (original language), German, French, Spanish
Booklet essay in English, German and French
UNITEL/C MAJOR BLU RAY 705804/DVD 705708 [189:00]
Before setting out to review this performance my first designated task was to compare the quality of the DVD with that of the Blu Ray version, in both vision and sound. For the picture comparison I used my Panasonic equipment including a flat screen TX-L series LCD/LED television, a DMP-BD45 Blue Ray Player and a DMR-EX75EB DVD recorder-player. The sound tests involved assessing the stereo play-back with amplification provided by a Studer-Revox B250-S amplifier driving two large KEF R105 three way Reference speakers.
The DVD versions of this HD-filmed performance are contained on two discs, whilst the Blu Ray is fitted onto one. With a few seconds to allow switching to take place I ran the two versions alternately so as to hear and see direct comparison of scenes and arias. Sonically I could discern no difference between them. However, visually the Blue Ray was markedly superior in sharpness and depth of tone. As a subjective neo-quantitative assessment I would put the superiority at around 10 per cent. I went on to try the more difficult task of comparing the DVD and Blu Ray discs in the DMP-BD45 Blu Ray Player with its up-scaling facility. This was more of a challenge because of the time delay and visual memory limitations before comparing scenes. What I can say is that with this quality of HD filming, the up-scaling allowed for a significant improvement in picture quality compared with playing the disc in the simple DVD recorder/player. Again, allowing for subjectivity of assessment, I would say the difference was only around 5 percent. With retail price differences between the formats of around 20 percent in retail shops - less via the internet - it is not a case of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware), but rather the limitations of ones budget. If you have a player and can afford the price difference then go for it in Blu Ray (Editor's note: at time of publishing, AmazonUK were offering the Blu-ray version significantly cheaper than the DVD).
Theodora was written as an oratorio not an opera. It was his penultimate oratorio and only the composer’s third after La Resurrezione (1708) and Messiah (1741) to have a specifically Christian subject, rather than merely a Biblical one. Handel based it on The Martyrdom of Theodora and of Didymus by Robert Boyle with the libretto set by Thomas Morell. Although he began work on the score in June 1749, it was not until 16 March 1750 that it finally received its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. It was not a success and was only was performed three more times during its composer's lifetime.
This performance was the opening production of the 2009 Salzburg Festival. As such it was the Festival's main contribution to events marking the 250th anniversary of Handel's death. The production finds stage director Christof Loy in minimalist mode. The reference to sets and costumes can also be taken with more than a pinch of salt. The large Grosses Festspielhaus stage is decorated only with simple school-type chairs with the large organ pipes as a backdrop. ‘Costume’ is a misnomer as dress is as one would expect in a concert performance except that Theodora changes her dress from white to red between parts one and two, possibly symbolic as to the loss of her precious virginity. The chorus and soloists move the chairs and themselves to illuminate the proceedings. The upshot is that the solo singers and chorus have to convey in facial and body language and behaviour the words they are singing.
That the story is conveyed successfully owes much to the simplicity of the direction and the acting of the solo singers in particular. Outstanding in this respect is Johannes Martin Kränzle as Valens, President of Antioch. His rock-like security of tone, facial expressions and commitment in the opening scene, and later, are a tower of strength. As Didymus the young convert to Christianity in love with Theodora, the counter-tenor Bejun Mehta has to overcome an unusual appearance with his shaven head and large eyes. That he does so, along with the burden of the largest solo part, and creates a character through his singing in particular, is a significant achievement. At no stage does he force his tone nor does his voice weaken; a formidably sung and acted realisation. As his friend Septimius, Joseph Kaiser is supportive in his acting and sings with pleasingly clear phrasing. As Theodora’s friend Irene, Bernarda Fink brings opulent vocal richness and variety of tone as well as committed and involved acting to her role delivered in an ideally understated manner. Ryland Davies, looking his age somewhat, knows how to sing this music as to the manner born in the role of Messenger.

The role of Theodora, virgin extraordinaire, is a difficult one to act as distinct from sing. Christine Schäfer’s accented English is a disadvantage to her expression, as is an occasional thinness of tone. That she overcomes these weaknesses to portray Theodora’s love, plight and ultimate sacrifice is to hail her professionalism. Sitting, knees tight close together in the opening scene as Valens nudges, eyes her and later generally rages (CH.6) calls for silent acting of a high order. Singing poignantly alongside the Didymus of Bejun Mehta in the final duet of martyrdom, Streams of pleasure, (CH.42 on Blu Ray and DVD 2 CH.40) finds her at her poignant best.
The chorus contribution is formidable in both singing and acting, whether being involved intimately in the drama or as chair carriers. Their articulation and intonation is first class. With this class of choral singing it is no wonder that Handel suggested, as the booklet tells, that the chorus that ends Part 2, He saw the lovely youth was far superior to the Hallelujah chorus from Messiah (CH. 52 on Blu Ray and DVD 2 CH.26) albeit that I would disagree. Along with their chorus-master their achievement owes much to conductor Ivor Bolton who brings out the richness of the score whilst also supporting his soloists. Part 3 includes an organ intermission in the form of the Concerto in G Minor op 7 no 5. HMW 310 played as Valens returns to confront Didymus, Irene and Theodora.
The video director avoids showing too much of the vast Grosses Festspielhaus with a well balanced mix of close-ups and mid-range camera work.
This work has an alternative interpretation on DVD taken from the Glyndebourne staging of 1995. The producer, the iconoclastic Peter Sellers, directs the video production too (Warner DVD 0630-15481-2). In typical Sellers manner nothing is spared with the lovers going to martyrdom via lethal injection. The singing of the soloists and the playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under William Christie are both impressive. However, neither the visual nor sound quality can match this version.
Robert J Farr
A sparse staging of Handel’s penultimate oratorio brilliantly filmed in HD with its qualities realised in all their sonic and visual glory on Blu Ray in particular.