Handel: Theodora

CD cover Handel Theodora

Lisette Oropesa Theodora, Joyce Didonato Irene, Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian Didymus, Michael Spyres Septimus, John Chest Valens SmScTTB, Il Pomo d’Oro, conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev
Erato 5054197177910
179:18 9 (3 CDs)

Having frequently berated British conductors for directing Handel’s operas as if they were oratorios, here’s a case of the boot being on the other foot – a non-British conductor directing one of the oratorios as if were an opera. If you are going to choose to do this, it would be difficult to think of a better candidate than Handel’s penultimate oratorio Theodora, first given to a libretto by Thomas Morell at Covent Garden in 1750. It is unusual for Handel in a number of respects, not least because it does not follow the usual format of setting an Old Testament story, but rather that of a Christian martyr in the Roman Empire. Moreover, in addition to being a morality, it is equally a love story between Theodora, the martyr and Didymus, a Roman soldier converted to Christianity by his love for her. That the pair suffer martyrdom together to meld into a love as unbreakable and eternal as that of Galatea and Acis is the uplifting message of Theodora, one underlined in Handel’s final chorus but totally (deliberately?) missed by Peter Sellars in his infamous 1996 production for Glyndebourne.

Maxim Emelyanychev’s approach is light-textured, rhythmically buoyant in quicker, more dramatic numbers, but above all infused with the Italianate lyricism that is so much a defining feature of Handel’s operas. More expressive numbers are often taken fashionably and excessively slowly, the Roman soldier Septimus’s sensitive ‘Descend, kind pity’ and Irene’s ravishing ‘As with rosy steps’ being two extreme examples from part 1; others follow at regular intervals. Also taken far too deliberately are the plain recitatives, which suffer from the all-too-common fault of being sung, often cantabile. And speaking of tediously repetitive faults in current performance practice, the inclusion of a theorbist who constantly makes his presence felt where it is not wanted is another. Indeed his superfluous and at times tasteless contributions serve to further inspire my intentions to found a society for the banning of continuo lutenists. It is worth recalling that in his benchmark recording of the oratorio Paul McCreesh found no reason to include such a personage. More positively, Il Pomo d’Oro’s playing is well up to the orchestra’s high standards, while the choral singing is one of the glories of the set. Employing a leaner ensemble than we usually hear in Handel oratorios – just four voices per part – balance, contrapuntal detail, incisiveness and projection are exemplary, while the English diction of the largely Italian membership is highly commendable. 

The cast assembled is interesting for including some of the most fashionable current names in the operatic world, a far cry from the kind of soloists that normally appear in a British Handel oratorio performance or recording. The Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa is particularly hot property at present – as I write she is about to sing her first Alcina as Covent Garden – whose activities extend way beyond the Handelian repertoire. The voice itself is simply gorgeous, generously imbued with a near-voluptuous quality. Bigger than one might expect in this repertoire, neither that fact nor a fast vibrato is troublesome here, both being under impressive control. Oropesa’s mid-range is especially lovely, with ‘Angels, ever bright’ a particularly good place to sample it. An air like ‘Oh, that I on wings’ displays an attractive bright agility, while passage work throughout is stylishly articulated. Some less than stylish ornamentation in the da capo of the same aria however features a less laudable side of her singing, while I found scant evidence of the ‘endless supply of golden-age trills’ mentioned in a blurb on the singer’s website. Indeed trills of any age are in notoriously short supply and you won’t find any coming from Joyce DiDonato’s as Theodora’s Christian companion Irene. What you will find in spades is her rare ability to colour a text and given the role’s allotment of some of Handel’s most memorable airs – ‘As with rosy steps’ and ‘New scenes of joy’ to name a couple – there is much to relish from her splendid assumption of the role. Not everything is praiseworthy, however, and like Oropesa, she is inclined to moments of self-indulgence, especially at cadenzas. Much the worst example occurs at the end of the recap of ‘Lord, to thee’, the air that opens part 3, where the long, unaccompanied meanderings come close to touching on narcissism.

The young French countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian is another artist understandably making considerable waves. The voice is one of intrinsic beauty, well produced and controlled. His Didymus is a highly musical performance, as is already apparent in the way he shapes the opening of his first aria, ‘The raptured soul’, while ‘Dread the fruits’ demonstrates full confidence in more bravura writing, with impressive passaggi. I’ve become accustomed to Michael Spyres as today’s leading interpreter of the great Berlioz tenor roles, so wondered what he’d make of the part of Septimus, the empathetic friend of Didymus. The answer is that he triumphs with it, producing a performance of great character, while demonstrating himself fully capable of encompassing the rather different technique required for Handel. And finally to round off a truly distinguished cast, John Chest is magnificent in the role of the unbending Roman tyrant Valens, his richly burnished tone and authoritative performance adding a further element of distinction.

Theodora is indisputably one of Handel’s greatest works, though it is worth recalling that as with many works of great stature, it was not always considered so. As such the present set is highly valuable for the fresh light it casts on a work that is one of the glories of the English oratorio repertoire. It is not perfect, as noted above, but it does include some exceptional singing and should to be heard by anyone who loves the work. If the ultimate library version remains Paul McCreesh’s superb 2000 recording, I am grateful to have heard this remarkable new Erato, to which I hope to return on many occasions.

Brian Robins