The death of the studio opera recording has been lamented ever since I started going to the opera, but Erato and Warner Classics have kept the tradition alive with recording after recording starring Joyce DiDonato, their most bankable star. Hot on the heels of a critically-acclaimed Agrippina, DiDonato expands her Handelian credentials with the dramatic oratorio Theodora, once again with Maxim Emelyanychev and Il Pomo d’Oro. They’ve assembled an outrageously luxurious cast for the recording, and as such have organised an accompanying European tour and livestream. At the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, three performances into the tour, there was some truly astounding singing but despite an abundance of vocal riches, it hasn’t quite come together dramatically yet.

Joyce DiDonato
© Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Perhaps this isn’t a fair criticism, though, because although Theodora contains some of Handel’s most sublime music, it can seem quite inert with three hours of slow, sad music, This poses a challenge – especially in a concert setting – and the cast wasn’t helped by the stage direction, with singers walking on and off just to sing their lines. There were many moments where characters would directly address a character who had long departed the stage and were left to just stand and sing out. It's difficult to achieve a profound meditation of religion, death and authority under these circumstances.

Within this dramatic vacuum, it was left to the singers to put their stamp on the music, and DiDonato certainly had no shortage of ideas in her portrayal of Irene. It’s clearly a role that she has thought a lot about and which means a lot to her, and she captured a wonderful ambiguity in the character. Typically portrayed as a paragon of noble decency, DiDonato offered something more extroverted, more zealous – her decrees to Theodora and her congregation of Christians were filled with a religious fervour that was at once rousing and disturbing. Vocally, she was on glorious form, spinning out the long lines of “As with rosy steps” and “Defend her, Heaven” with rapt intensity. There were some eccentric moments too, particularly an oddly showy “Bane of virtue” and an extended cadenza in “Lord, to thee” which brought to mind a Kol Nidre. It’s an interesting take on the role, done with her customary intelligence and impeccable technique, and I look forward to seeing how she translates these ideas when she does the role for the first time in a staged production in a few months.

Lisette Oropesa
© Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

In the title role, Lisette Oropesa offered a straightforward sincerity and innocence. Oropesa’s voice is a perfect fit for the character, pure and unforced but with enough fullness to bloom in Handel’s long legato lines. As always, her vocal technique was a marvel, with perfectly integrated registers and fluent command of Handelian ornamentation. Her Act 2 prison scene was the highlight of the evening, marrying endless lines of pearly sound with disarming sincerity. As her lover Didymus, the young French countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian sang with a beautiful, rich tone and excellent coloratura, particularly in his opening aria. His plummy sound, though, wasn’t ideally matched with Oropesa’s silvery purity in the final duet, and his English suffered in comparison to his Anglophone cast-mates.

Maxim Emelyanychev and Il Pomo d'Oro
© Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

As Valens, the Roman general who sets the tragic events of the evening in motion, John Chest had less to sing than the rest of the cast, but made his mark with agile coloratura and a spectacular high A. The role sits lower than where Chest’s voice sits, though, and lacked dramatic gravitas, although his stage presence was never less than thrilling. Finally, the true wild-card casting was tenor Michael Spyres as Septimius. Surely no other tenor has sung the role in between performances of Florestan and Tristan, but Spyres has high notes and coloratura to burn, particularly in an impressively quick “Dread the fruits of Christian folly” that brought the house down. He was at his best in the simplicity of his final aria with its long, aching lines, displaying a dramatic involvement that eluded him in earlier acts.

The evening was overseen by Emelyanychev, bounding onto the stage with an enthusiasm that didn’t let up for the entirety of the performance. He coaxed phenomenal playing from his orchestra, articulate in parts, delicately smooth in others. The small chorus of sixteen sang with vigour and accuracy, particularly in the complex counterpoint of the extended choral scenes, though they weren’t helped by being placed so far back onstage. All of these will surely be ironed out in time for the recording and in the editing studio. But beyond the singing, Theodora can be one of the most devastatingly moving experiences in the theatre, and this performance left me impressed rather than transformed.