Saturday night’s performance of Handel’s oratorio Theodora at La Maison Symphonique in Montréal was magnificent, probably the best concert I’ve seen this season. Les Violons du Roy, La Chapelle de Québec, as well as a handful of soloists from Québec and England, all under the masterful direction of Bernard Labadie, brought this somewhat obscure work vividly to life. There was literally never a dull moment throughout the three long acts. The audience, captivated throughout, gave a heartfelt standing ovation at the end.

Not your standard Handel crowd-pleaser à la Messiah, Theodora tells the tragic tale of chaste lovers in a dangerous time. Because she refuses to take part in pagan celebrations, Theodora, a fourth-century Christian martyr, is condemned first to “public lust” (i.e. prostitution), and then to death, by Valens, the Roman president. Didymus, a Roman soldier and secret convert to Christianity, is in love with the virtuous heroine, and pleads with Valens to spare her. His futile arguments only incite the Roman leader to harsher judgments, and in the end, both Theodora and Didymus are executed. (Luckily for them – like all dramatic lovers – they have great faith that love transcends death and so rest secure in the knowledge that they will meet again in heaven.)

Handel’s penultimate – and favourite – oratorio, Theodora premièred in 1750. Thomas Morell’s mediocre libretto is based on Thomas Boyle’s The Martydom of Theodora and of Didymus, written in 1687; it also draws on Corneille’s Théodore, Vierge et Martyre. The première was a failure, and the work was performed only a few times – apparently Handel explained its lack of success thus: “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.” For whatever reason, Theodora is still the least performed of Handel’s oratorios. Which is a shame, because the music is a veritable panoply of Baroque affections, revealing Handel at the peak of his compositional and expressive powers.

Les Violons were augmented by a substantial wind section, which was beautifully highlighted throughout the evening. Moments of musical text-painting – sunrise, thunder, darkness, light – were perfectly rendered by the ensemble. The energy and precision of the instrumental playing supported and never overwhelmed the singing; orchestral interludes worked perfectly to set the mood. The eleven choral numbers were lovely, musically and dramatically well-integrated. But of course special mention must go to the soloists.

Karina Gauvin’s perfectly and seemingly effortlessly controlled pianissimos floated over the orchestra and projected to the back of the hall. Her astoundingly expressive singing flawlessly portrayed the tragic dignity of a heroine willing to die for her beliefs, willing to sacrifice herself so her beloved can live (unfortunately for them both Varens holds no quarter for such sentiments). Iestyn Davies’ sweet, pure countertenor voice blended perfectly with Gauvin’s during duets, although once or twice I was a tiny bit, perhaps unnecessarily, worried that her voice would outshine his. The duet they sang at the end of Act II, where they bid each other farewell, not knowing if they will meet next on Earth or in Heaven, was heartbreakingly beautiful. At one point Davies sang completely unaccompanied for a phrase or two: his voice seemed to take on a life of its own, hovering magically over the audience before dissipating.

Another highlight was the aria “As with rosy steps the morn”, sung by contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux in the role of Irene, Theodora’s friend. The orchestral introduction vividly portrays the changing colours of sunrise, and her rich voice, with its wide dynamic range, picked up the sunrise metaphor in her description of the saviour dispelling the dark of night and lighting the way. The depth and complexity of Lemieux’s voice contrasted and complemented the clarity and sharp focus of Gauvin’s.

Tenor Allan Clayton, in his role as Didymus’ friend and confidant Septimius, played perfectly the compassionate intermediary between Didymus and the terrifying Varens. Both Clayton and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams (as Varens) executed those tricky Handelian runs sans faute. Biblical-era tyrants were nasty, and Foster-Williams embodied the formidable and increasingly menacing Varens with terrifying panache.

Sometimes Theodora is staged as an opera. With this cast of soloists, costumes and acting would be almost superfluous, as their singing alone was enough to convey the dark drama as it unfolded.