The Handel’s oratorio Theodora cannot boast the popularity of his best-known work, Messiah. No glorius reception, no triumphant performances, no enthuisiastic reviews: the composer’s personal favorite was staged only four times during his lifetime, to be safely forgotten for ages. The biographers can only guess the reasons, but perhaps the most probable explanation lies in an interior treatment of a dramatic subject of this oratorio. The Christian martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus is treated by Handel without any signs of religious exaltation. There are no massive folk scenes with jubilent choirs or arias you will sing for days in a row as Theodora has no catchy evergreens like Messiah. What it does have is emotionally charged music which grabs hold of you during the performance and will not let you go. And if you are lucky and make your first acquaintance with Theodora thanks to the phenomenal Les Arts Florissants and their conductor William Christie, it will ensure the profound impression and encourage the further discovery of Handel’s penultimute oratorio. 

Philippe Jaroussky © Simon Fowler
Philippe Jaroussky
© Simon Fowler
An experienced opera composer, with an innate sense of drama, Handel accumulated in Theodora all melodic, harmonic and rhythmic resources together with an efficient instrumentation to reach the emotional effects he wanted. Hope, grief, faith, love and disbelief – the recitatives, arias, duets and choruses are based on emotional and expessive contrasts which all lead to a climax of the sacrifice of two young Christians. During all three acts, Christie keeps the story moving, building up a constant dialogue between the soloists, the choir and the orchestra and sets this early Christian drama in a fascinating musical frame. The music of this oratorio is abundant in refined and delicate lyrical lines, but it also has festive and grieving choruses and virtouoso vocal writing as well. Handel’s characters found their excellent performers in Katherine Watson, Philippe Jaroussky, Krešimir Špicer and Stéphanie d’Oustrac. The pure voice of Watson is full of beauty and inner persuasion. In her duets with Didymus it blended beautifully with the tones of Jaroussky. D’Oustrac set up a forthright Irene, while Špicer portrayed a compassionate Septimus. The superbly ornamentated arias with flowing melodies were ideally suited to the vocal possibilities and timbres of the soloists. There were moments when the voices of Watson and Jaroussky were completely at one with the orchestra, growing out of it, melting with it in perfect harmonic expression. Though everybody sings in most cases about sacrifices, martyrdom and expectations of eternal life, the singers were convincing and human, without any sentimental or pathetic exaggerations in strenghening their dramatic intentions. Christie’s Theodora presents true characters with an intensive inner life.

With this performance in Amsterdam, Les Arts Florissants introduced ‘another’ Handel who is too often shadowed by his popular sunshine compositions. The sunlight of Theodora is in its hope, honesty and profoundly emotional lyricism, no less radiant than jubilant glory.  

****1