Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685-1759)
Theodora HWV 68 (1749) [200:39]
Valens - Frode Olsen (bass); Didymus - David Daniels (counter-tenor); Septimius
- Richard Croft (tenor); Theodora - Dawn Upshaw (soprano); Irene - Lorraine
Hunt (mezzo); Messenger - Michael Hart-Davis (tenor).
William Christie (continuo harpsichord)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & The Glyndebourne Chorus/William
rec. live, May-June 1996, Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, England.
GLYNDEBOURNE GFOCD 014-96 [3 CDs: 71:47 + 71:25 + 57:27]
Handel’s penultimate oratorio, despite being the composer’s favourite,
was a miserable failure lasting only three performances. Librettist Thomas Morell
quotes Handel as saying "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian
story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one."
Its popularity was revived when it was staged by Glyndebourne as an opera in
1996 with an almost all-American cast. For those averse to Peter Sellars’
production, with its depiction of a modern totalitarian state rather than presenting
the authentic story of martyrdom by Roman persecution of Christians, this issue
presents a preferable alternative to the DVD as it allows us to concentrate
upon the production’s musical values and ignore modish distractions. There
is still rather too much audience noise and ambient rustling as well as persistent
idiocies such as Sellars’ having the chorus ape a Jeremy Kyle audience
by whooping their approval of chief-Christian-basher Valens’ bloodthirsty
outbursts, but by and large the musical virtues of this performance fully justify
its release on CD.
Never much of a fan of Dawn Upshaw, I concede that this is the finest thing
I have heard from her; she sings with purity and feeling, although I still find
her occasionally a little arch. Norwegian bass Frode Olsen is plausibly fanatical
while still remaining elegant of voice. Richard Croft brings a very smooth,
warm-toned tenor to bear on some very difficult music. The two undoubted stars
here are velvet-voiced mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt (before she became Hunt Lieberson)
and the extraordinarily adept counter-tenor David Daniels. Both have such richness
and evenness of tone coupled with a vivid sense of the dramatic and their two
voices remain utterly distinctive in character. The chorus is superb: young
and flexible-sounding; Christie directs a nuanced yet direct account using a
relatively small orchestra without losing the requisite sense of grandeur and
without any irritating HIP mannerisms such as bulges or clipped phrasing.
This is one of the most consistently inventive and arresting of Handel’s
oratorios; highlights include Irene’s heart-stoppingly beautiful “As
with rosy steps the morn”, Didymus’s “The raptur’d soul”
and the sublime aria and duet for him and Theodora at the close of the work
as they go to their deaths.
The packaging is very attractive: a tastefully produced bound booklet with
the CDs in slipcases at the front and back, a full English libretto, synopsis
and essay by Stanley Sadie.
Consistently inventive and arresting.