on 20 December 2000
Handel's Theodora - the tale of Christian Martyrdom set in Antioch c304 A.D, is an utter delight, and no more so in this new recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players.
Those of you reading who were lucky enough to see the Glyndebourne production a couple of years ago with Dawn Upshaw, David Daniels et al, will already know what an emotional work this is, and this recording conveys Handel's musical (and emotional) mastery perfectly.
For your money you get three CDs (79, 60 and 48 mins respectively). The recording is crisp and responsive - the tempi well balanced and the pitch even (in this case A=418Hz).
What of the Cast? Counter-tenors are now big business with the likes of Scholl and Daniels regularly appearing on the World's opera stages, but it is refreshing to hear the excellent (and English) Robin Blaze in this recording. His voice is majestic, florid and emotional all at once, with a light, even temperament (listen to 'The raptur'd soul' or 'Sweet Rose and Lilly').
The soprano Susan Gritton is now a personal favourite of mine and in the title role she not only shines, but is a good pairing for Blaze's Didymus, no more so than in the two utterly rapturous duets at the end parts II and III respectively ('To thee thou glorious son of worth' and 'stream of pleasure ever flowing'). Sue Gritton has power when required but also possesses intelligence and the emotional depth to really make any aria meaningful.
Singers no less accomplished than Gritton and Blaze take the other lead roles. Susan Bickley's Irene is fantastic, and the timbre of her voice a delight to hear - she also gets my vote for 'best ornamentation', with some wonderful moments ('Bane of Virtue' and 'As with rosy steps the morn').
The other two male roles, Valens and Septimius are given excellent performances by the bass Neal Davies and the tenor Paul Agnew respectively. Both these singers convey the music perfectly, with Agnew's lyrical tenor voice standing out especially.
One must not forget either the chorus or the orchestra. The Gabrieli chorus makes a fantastic sound that is both well articulated and intelligent. The counterpoint and fugal quality of Handel's music is delivered with vigour when required and emotion in the more contemplative numbers. The chorus sings beautifully what Handel rated as one of his finest choruses, of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (He saw the lovely youth) - it is easy to see why!
This recording has everything - a fine cast and chorus supported by an excellent band on period instruments. In short, it is three hours of some of the best music Handel ever wrote, and for that reason alone should grace the shelves of any lover of Handel's exquisite music.
Dying for one's beliefs, Bertrand Russell said, is putting rather a high premium on conjecture. Killing for one's beliefs seems to be back on the agenda these days, and the story of the Christian martyrs Theodora and Didymus should strike a few chords in the 21st century. The Roman 'President' (yes, really) Valens is not some monster of total evil but a perfectly recognisable authoritarian redneck -- the laws of Rome including religious observances will be obeyed or else. Theodora refuses as a Christian and is sentenced to prostitution. The closet Christian Didymus tries to help, Valens' lieutenant Septimius intercedes with Valens arguing that it would have been his duty to carry out a sentence of death but not of a fate worse than, and the outcome is death for Theodora and Didymus. Lucretius said in the century before either Christianity or the Roman Empire were founded that religious beliefs are totally unverifiable yet this is the kind of misery they have people inflicting on themselves and one another.
Handel's Theodora is a towering masterpiece. It would be hard to imagine any serious music lover going through life ignorant of Messiah, the St Matthew Passion, Figaro or Tristan, but I wonder how many know Theodora, which is of the same stature as any of these. It is a big work (longer than Aida) and it is more even in quality than Messiah. It is not really right to single out individual numbers, but the first two arias from Theodora's confidante Irene will be likely to make a big impression on newcomers to the work until even they are surpassed by Theodora's Angels Ever Bright and Fair. The arias of Valens are superb pieces of Handelian swashbuckle, like The Enemy Said from Israel in Egypt or the tremendous Revenge Timotheus Cries from Alexander's Feast. The main choruses are wonderful and the whole work reinforces my growing belief that Handel was the ultimate master of vocal writing.
Morell's libretto seems to me distinctly good, given that it is in the strange lingo that English poetry adopted in the 18th century. It is never ridiculous, and Dryden himself inflicted far worse on Chaucer believing he was 'fortifying' him with 'a correct and splendid diction', more realistically called by Housman 'this impure verbiage'. I personally would not want the poetry too good, because most great poetry does not lend itself to musical setting (as well-intentioned settings of Housman seem to me to prove). Morell provides a workmanlike inner structure for Handel to erect his temple.
The performers are eminent specialists, it is many years since I last heard Theodora, I have no other performance to compare, and I am too grateful for this one to try to criticise. It suits me that vocal cadenzas are kept minimal and that the harpsichord continuo is not obtrusive. I thought I had read somewhere that Handel actually had clarinets for an early performance, but I may be mistaken. As often with Handel it is hard to establish an authoritative version of the score, and alternative endings to Act II are provided.
Will I live to see the day when Theodora is in its rightful place as a central classic of our musical heritage? This set can only help in a big way towards that.