Staged oratorios by Handel enjoyed a period of popularity in Australia in the 1980s, and we now seem to be seeing a revival of interest in such theatrical presentations. Not all the oratorios are of equal dramatic value however, and the staging needs to be able to fan the narrative flames such as they sometimes are. The recent Canberra performance of Jephtha (under the title “The Vow”) showed some of the pitfalls, and this Theodora, performed at Sydney’s City Recital Hall by Pinchgut Opera, is not immune. One does wonder at the urge to produce oratorios in this way when Handel wrote some 40 operas actually meant to be staged.

Valda Wilson (Theodora) © Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera
Valda Wilson (Theodora)
© Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera

Veteran director Lindy Hume is a stagecraft whizz, adept at moving people around a stage, but perhaps overly focused on “relevance” at the expense of excitement and urgency. It is obviously tempting in our troubled times to bend art to the service of a liberal agenda, but the persecuted Christians here don’t really quite work as a minority group being crushed by the forces of authoritarianism. The City Recital Hall is always problematic for dramatic works, lacking a proscenium arch and other accoutrements of a real opera house. In this case, the design (Dan Potra) has not helped, the set comprising a large-scale Lego set moved around as the show progresses to form a low-stepped pyramid, a three-sided forum of desks, a banquet table and so on, and taking up quite a lot of the small stage. Costuming is basically modern dress and drab; that’s probably okay for the anti-affluent Christians, but one would have hoped for more flamboyance from the Romans than business suits with one coloured sleeve per individual. Some sensual excitement was generated by the opening of Act II, featuring a Roman orgy staged around a banqueting table featuring flowers and candelabras.

Valda Wilson (Theodora) and Caitlin Hulcup (Irene) © Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera
Valda Wilson (Theodora) and Caitlin Hulcup (Irene)
© Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera

The temptation to cut Handel’s longer works has prevailed here, particularly as we near the end of the work. Surely Pinchgut has cultivated its audiences to last longer than three hours with interval in non-mainstream works? We are deprived of chunks of recitative, one of Valens’s airs, part of Didymus’s accompagnato “Forbid it heaven”, an air of Theodora, a duet between Theodora and Irene, and two of the latter’s airs. These are both to be regretted, the first (“Bane of virtue”) because it gives us a better view of what the Christians are actually on about, and the second (“New scenes of joy”) which embodies the Christians’ optimism about the future, and also of course because they are strong pieces of music.

However, what was missing in the physical staging was more than compensated for by the musical values deployed. Conductor Erin Helyard is a sure hand at Baroque music, and the Orchestra of the Antipodes was more than up to its usual standard, creating a sumptuous and subtle stream of sound, always in the service of the singers. Cantillation is an outstanding choir. Their perfect synchronisation and focus set off all the choruses to perfection; in a work of many such, perhaps worth singling out is “Go, gen’rous, pious youth”, sung with great beauty and an impressive hushed quality in the last lines.

Christopher Lowrey (Didymus) and Ed Lyon (Septimus) © Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera
Christopher Lowrey (Didymus) and Ed Lyon (Septimus)
© Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera

Theodora was sung by Valda Wilson, who impressed in a concert performance of Rodelinda under Richard Bonynge in Sydney four years ago. Here, she was obliged to act, or at least move about, more and conveyed excellently the shame and outrage at her subjection. Her full-bodied soprano has quite an impressive range, and she displayed excellent control and lovely pianissimi in “Fond, flatt’ring world adieu” and shining high notes in “Angels, ever bright and fair”. Vocal honours for the evening however must go to Christopher Lowrey’s Didymus, a tour de force of singing and acting. Here surely is the emerging countertenor of the decade, with beautiful, seemingly effortless sound devoid of any trace of covering or hootiness. In his first air, “The raptured soul”, he captured all with a stunning messa di voce, continuing with lovely tone, accuracy, smooth flexibility and (not least) great clarity of diction. All his airs, and recitatives, were delivered with great conviction, and “Deeds of kindness” was notable for a beautiful cadenza. “Sweet rose and lily” was sung with exquisite sweetness. His duets with Theodora were beautifully blended and moving.

Caitlin Hulcup has already established her reputation as a Handelian here and abroad, and her rendition of Irene’s arias were intense and moving, with lovely golden mezzo sound. Septimius was well sung by tenor Ed Lyon with some ringing notes especially in “Though the honours that Flora”, although his intonation seemed a little insecure in places. Andrew Hollis was an appropriately ferocious Valens.

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