Until fairly recently, most people would have heard the phrase 'Handel oratorio' and thought, "Ah, Messiah". But there is much more to Handel than Messiah, not least his 40 odd operas most of which have had a decent recording by now, or his many oratorios which are now receiving the same treatment. Even fewer people would have considered staging a Handel oratorio, but at Glyndebourne in 1996 Peter Sellars' production was a sell-out, and the adulation for the team of soloists unsparing. Hence we have this video recording, directed by Sellars himself, and capturing for posterity the dynamism and emotional intensity of this Handelian classic.
The story of Theodora, a Christian martyr of the Roman period (during the reign of Emperor Diocletian), is not a well-known one, but Handel took Thomas Morell's libretto and produced a masterpiece - one ravishing number after another.
The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment under William Christie produces a first rate performance, even in Act 3 which in less assured hands can drag rather, without any significant action to be portrayed. Tempi and conventions are apposite, and the audience sit in stunned silence bemused by the unfolding scenes of Christian virtue and pagan obduracy.
Didymus (David Daniels) the Roman soldier loves Theodora (Dawn Upshaw), a Christian, but is under orders from the President of Antioch (Valens - bass) to persecute all those who will not honour the emperor's birthday. The Roman centurion Septimius (Richard Croft), whose job it is to ensure christian compliance with the pagan festival, is also friend to Didymus and later confronts a conflict of interest when he has to arrest his friend and have him and Theodora executed as Christians. The last major character Irene (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson), leader of the Christians, acts as a sort of commentator on events along with the excellent Glyndebourne chorus.
All of the singers are well immersed in their parts, but inevitably one must pick out highlights - Hunt Lieberson is an extraordinary performer, totally and emotionally committed to her work and she it is who holds the oratorio together as Irene. Dawn Upshaw has some nice moments as Theodora, but it is another American, David Daniels, who takes the eye. His performance as Didymus is electric, with a ravishing tone and easy delivery. Whilst his is an 'operatic' voice, the part of Didymus seems almost written for him, and he steals the show. Richard Croft is also at ease with some very awkward passagework as Septimius and has become my favourite Handelian tenor.
So, all in all, an outstanding performance; singers utterly committed to communicating their emotions and the moral message of Handel's work, a classic production from Glyndebourne and most welcome on DVD. The picture and sound is excellent, the subtitles clear. Highly recommended not only for the Handel buff, but for any admirer of high-class music-making.