Handel's penultimate oratorio, despite being the composer's favourite, was a miserable failure lasting only three performances. Librettist Thomas Morell quotes Handel as saying "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one." Its popularity was revived when it was staged by Glyndebourne as an opera in 1996 with an almost all-American cast. For those averse to Peter Sellars' production, with its depiction of a modern totalitarian state rather than presenting the authentic story of martyrdom by Roman persecution of Christians, this issue presents a preferable alternative to the DVD as it allows us to concentrate upon the production's musical values and ignore modish distractions. There is still rather too much audience noise and ambient rustling as well as persistent idiocies such as Sellars' having the chorus ape a Jeremy Kyle audience by whooping their approval of chief-Christian-basher Valens' bloodthirsty outbursts, but by and large the musical virtues of this performance fully justify its release on CD.
Never much of a fan of Dawn Upshaw, I concede that this is the finest thing I have heard from her; she sings with purity and feeling, although I still find her occasionally a little arch. Norwegian bass Frode Olsen is plausibly fanatical while still remaining elegant of voice. Richard Croft brings a very smooth, warm-toned tenor to bear on some very difficult music. But the two undoubted stars here are velvet-voiced mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt (before she became Hunt Lieberson) and the extraordinarily adept counter-tenor David Daniels. Both have such richness and evenness of tone coupled with a vivid sense of the dramatic and their two voices remain utterly distinctive in character. The chorus is superb: young and flexible-sounding; Christie directs a direct yet nuanced account using a relatively small orchestra without losing the requisite sense of grandeur and without any irritating HIP mannerisms such as bulges or clipped phrasing.
This is one of the most consistently inventive and arresting of Handel's oratorios; highlights include Irene's heart-stoppingly beautiful "As with rosy steps the morn", Didymus's "The raptur'd soul" and the sublime aria and duet for him and Theodora at the close of the work as they go to their deaths.
The packaging is very attractive: a tastefully produced bound booklet with the CDs in slipcases at the front and back, a full English libretto, synopsis and essay by Stanley Sadie.