After Bach’s Passions, Handel’s Theodora is the perfect work to hear on Easter Weekend. It is a profound meditation on sacrifice and faith that transcends most of his other English-language oratorios by virtue of its humanity. Thomas Morrell’s libretto depicts not heavenly grace but earthly sacrifice, and the story’s devotional honesty inspired its composer to music of aching beauty. It’s a score that finds God in compassion.

Polly Leech as Irene with the RCM Oratorio Society (2016) © Chris Christodoulou (2016)
Polly Leech as Irene with the RCM Oratorio Society (2016)
© Chris Christodoulou (2016)

In 304 AD a Roman officer, Didymus, is advised against wooing the virtuous Theodora because of Diocletian’s persecution of the early Christians. Emboldened by love and strengthened by his conversion to Christianity, he stands up to the ruthless Emperor Valens before joining his beloved in martyrdom.

Christian Curnyn’s intensive week of preparation with the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra yielded transcendent results: pairs of haloed flutes, subtle theorboes and immaculately controlled natural horns complemented as cohesive a string section as one could hope to hear. Across a long evening the ensemble had a flair whose conviction filled the heart.

Where singers were concerned things were less straightforward. As a group of 16 they sang the choruses with thrilling attack and collective virtuosity, even if the distinction between Christians and Heathens was sometimes pot luck. As soloists (they all got at least one aria) they provided a mixed experience. Moreover, I couldn’t help but wish that Handel had written more for the tenor, because the four on offer were all pretty sound but had to share some very slim pickings.

We’re talking about students and young professionals so I’ll be wary about bandying names. Here instead, in a nod to last weekend’s Glyndebourne Opera Cup and as a means of cutting to the chase, is my roll of honour.

First prize: Polly Leech (mezzo- soprano) a complete artist whose command of style, score, vocal technique and stagecraft was staggering. Her rendition of Irene’s "Bane of virtue" was the first moment at which a singer’s performance met the measure of the work. Alas for all concerned, "As with rosy steps the morn" was allocated elsewhere.

Runner-up: Nazan Fikret (soprano) with a fully realised account of Theodora’s "Angels, ever bright and fair". If to this listener her second aria, "With darkness deep", lacked early despair and rose too soon to heavenly bliss, such matters were interpretational choices rather than shortcomings.

Best male singer: Joel Williams (tenor), whose "Descend, kind pity" was warm, mellifluous and perfectly controlled. It was his only solo moment, but we will be hearing much more from this Royal College of Music alumnus in years to come.

Honourable mentions go to soprano Charlotte Bowden, tenor Patrick Kilbride and bass Jolyon Loy. There were near-misses for a couple of countertenors too, but one shrieked at the top and faded at the bottom while the other, though more technically secure, buried his head so deeply in his score that poor old Didymus remained glued the page.

Under the attentive preparatory guidance of Dame Sarah Connolly most of the singers were effective in bringing out the oratorio’s unmistakable operatic credentials. Theodora was one of Handel’s own most prized works, perhaps because the characters are drawn with such truth that their travails cannot fail to move the listener. Only in one aria, "Tho’ in honours" for Septimus (the confidant of Didymus), did a singer completely miss the mood of the moment.

***11