It has often been quoted that Handel’s penultimate oratorio Theodora was a failure when it was first premiered in the spring of 1750, receiving only three performances. Apparently it fared worse at the box office than any of his other English oratorios, and was only revived once during his lifetime. Despite this, it is said that Handel had a special affection for this work, and I’m sure he would have been thrilled to see a full-house Royal Albert Hall for its first Proms performance.

Louise Alder
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

For a religious oratorio about martyrdom and sacrifice, remarkably little dramatic action occurs in Theodora. Set in 4th-century Antioch under the rule of Dioclesian, Theodora, a noble Christian woman, refuses to offer sacrifice to the Roman Gods and is imprisoned. Didymus, a Roman soldier in love with Theodora and who has secretly converted to Christianity, rescues her but is condemned to death instead. They are executed together. What makes this work different from Handel's earlier Old Testament oratorios is that rather than setting it as a dramatic conflict between the two opposing forces, Handel places the focus on each character’s inner drama.

Such intimacy and reflection was certainly brought to the fore in this performance with Jonathan Cohen leading his period-instrument ensemble and chorus team of Arcangelo and a line-up of five outstanding lyrical voices. There must have been a temptation to scale up their forces to compete with the vast RAH space, but actually the orchestra was a modest size (8 first violins), and the chorus was just under 40 singers. Depending on where you were sitting, it may have sounded a little quiet, but the balance between orchestra, chorus and the soloists was perfect and, if anything, the intimacy of the work and performance drew in the audience. The string playing was vibrant, incisive and delicately phrased, for example in Valens’ “Rack, gibbets, sword and fire”. I also enjoyed the elegant solos of the Baroque flutes in the quieter moments (such as Septimius’ “Descend, kind pity”), as well as the delicate and imaginative contribution from the continuo group, including theorbo player Thomas Dunford.

Soprano Louise Alder, currently experiencing a meteoric rise, suited the role of Theodora perfectly. There are no vocal fireworks in this role (hence not much room for flamboyant embellishment either) and instead one needs boundless lyricism, which Alder certainly has. “Angels, ever bright and fair”, which Theodora sings as she is captured by Roman soldier Septimius, was heartbreakingly beautiful. As Irene, Theodora’s friend and fellow Christian, Ann Hallenberg sang with warmth and wisdom, including the famous “As with rosy steps the morn”. 

Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Countertenor Iestyn Davies, fresh from a successful run as David in Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne, sang the role of Didymus, which Handel composed for the celebrated castrato, Guadagni. Perhaps the role lies slightly low to showcase Davies' richest vocal range to the full, but regardless he gave a committed performance and really inhabited the role on stage – even when he wasn’t singing, his glances and body language expressed his emotional conflict and desperation. The two duets between the lovers were sublime and there was a rapturous silence in the audience as he and Alder poignantly and ardently sang their final duet.

Benjamin Hulett portrayed a sympathetic friend to Didymus, and his lyrical and stylish tenor voice soared effortlessly in his aria “Descend, kind pity”. Roman governor Valens, sung by German bass Tareq Nazmi, was the only real villainous character on the stage, and he could have instilled a bit more menace and gravity in his voice. The chorus were in resonant voice; as Christians, devout and pious, and as the Heathens at the beginning of Part 2, they brought some earthly pleasures.

I had hoped that the oratorio would be presented in full, but the limited time frame at the Proms meant that a couple of arias and sections of the recitative were omitted. Also, having to take an interval mid-Part 2 caused some confusion in the audience. Still, such small niggles apart, it was as fine and sensitive a performance of a Handel oratorio as one could wish for. Although it was Sellars’ Glyndebourne production that put this work on the map in our time, Arcangelo team showed that an emotionally committed concert performance could work just as well, even in the vast Royal Albert Hall.