Written late in Handel’s lifetime, Theodora’s first performances were a disappointing failure. The gloomy and tragic Christian story of martyrdom was seen as too virtuous, the Jews didn’t like it and earth tremors in 1750 had cleared the composer’s usual patrons out of London to the safety of their country estates. Handel must have been particularly saddened as he ranked Theodora as one of his favourite oratorios. Re-appraisal of the work happily marks it as one of his finest works and there was great anticipation in the intimate setting of the Queen’s Hall as an exciting line-up of early music soloists with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Choir in their very best Baroque mode were joined by Handel expert conductor Harry Bicket standing in for an indisposed Richard Egarr.

Iestyn Davies © Marco Borggreve
Iestyn Davies
© Marco Borggreve
It is fair to say that the audiences don’t flock to this work because of the sad story of the Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus by Thomas Boyle, and certainly not for the old-fashioned text by Thomas Morell. It is also a long evening at just less than three hours, with no Hallelujahs and the drums and brass away home at half-time, but the lovely music is some of Handel’s finest allowing singers and players to weave their magic Baroque spell.

The story is a simple but brutal tale of persecution of Christians in Roman controlled Antioch.   Didymus, a Roman soldier secretly converted to Christianity asks Valens, the Roman Governor to excuse those on conscience grounds from attending the spring festival which involves offering sacrifices to the goddesses Venus and Flora. Theodora defies the Roman governor Valens and Septimus whom he has put in charge of the festivities, refuses to take part and is arrested, her punishment not death as she expected, but to become a prostitute in the temple of Venus. Didymus visits Theodora in jail, and they exchange clothes, allowing her to escape, but Didymus is discovered, and both he and Theodora are sentenced to death by a raging Valens. They vie for martyrdom and sing a heart-breaking duet affirming their faith and anticipating the afterlife.

From the stately start in the overture, suddenly it was as if Bicket had lit a firework touchpaper as the players sprung into life with exciting dynamics and flourishes. The sheer enjoyment on the faces of the musicians was infectious, the sound of the natural brass trumpets and horns adding extra period exuberance. Neal Davies was a deeply authoritarian Valens, with a big bass voice commanding Septimus to “Go my faithful soldier, go …”, and then raging in fury, positively spitting “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire” at Didymus’ daring request of conscience. The lively Romans in Act I got trumpets, drums and lively dances, two big choruses with Baroque timpani going off like gunshots. Iestyn Davies was a superb Didymus, his bright countertenor full of clarity and lightness, the main character around which the drama revolves, and given some heartfelt arias to sing. The delicate start to “The Raptured Soul” was spellbinding, especially building the repeat almost from thin air.

It is interesting to see how singers treat da capo arias – in this performance the soloists seemed to adopt the understated approach of singing the repeat with minimal ornament, showing rather that they had learned from the experience of singing it first time. It is a more mature approach, and in keeping with the solemn theme.

Renata Pocupić was Irene, Theoroda’s companion, the go-between of the oratorio, her words crystal clear and her rich mezzo voice deeply sympathetic; Samuel Boden, doubling as the Messenger and Septimus, a light tenor. Stephanie True’s bright soprano Theodora was a tortured soul, bravely resigned to her fate in a moving performance.

Chorus director Gregory Batsleer placed the chorus in a true jumble, so that no singer was next to another singing the same part. Common on the operatic stage and unusual in a concert hall, it resulted in an exciting wall of sound as each singer sang more as an individual. In a meticulous and controlled performance there was lots of attention to detail, clarity of words and a superb range of dynamics. The finale to Act I, “Go, generous, pious youth” was especially exciting.

Bicket was mesmerising to watch as he conducted from the harpsichord, sometimes sitting and then standing to coax a whole palette of colours from the players who responded to his every nuance. A chamber organ and theorbo added to the outstanding continuo mix, and a pair of flutes, one placed high up in the balcony provided atmosphere in the prison scenes. A collection of first-rate Handel performers performing as a team produced a special Baroque night to savour.