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Gabrieli Consort & Players/McCreesh, with Susan Gritton, Susan Bickley, Robin Blaze, Paul Agnew, Neal Davies & Angus Smith
DG Archiv 469 061-2 [76+60+47]

The only Handel oratorio set in Christian times, this poignant account of martyrdom was first heard in 1750 at Covent Garden and it is given complete here as in that performance. It is based upon The Martyrdom of Theodora & Didymus (1687) by Robert Boyle, scientist (he of Boyle's Law!), that based in turn upon St Ambrose's lives of admirable virgins (AD 377). Boyle wrote it to inspire upper-class youth and show that women can be heroines equally as men! The librettist Morell adapted the novel to a 'sentimental drama', a genre which is epitomised here by the protagonists' unswerving devotion to their cause, vying with each other to be the most self-sacrificing. The complexity of choices faced by ordinary people in real life is represented by the repressive Roman President's friend Septimius who is swayed from loyalty towards sympathy for the victims.

Theodora created a furore recently at Glyndebourne in a harrowing production by Peter Sellars, who updated it and had the victims killed by lethal injection with all the paraphernalia of USA executions. This studio recording distances it inevitably, but it remains affecting and is graced with numerous tender arias of great beauty and many fine choruses. The stylish accompaniments are given transparency and rhythmic life by Paul McCreesh and All Saints, Tooting provides the right ambience.

The score (King's Music) has been newly edited by Timothy Roberts and Clifford Bartlett and all modern scholarship has been brought to bear upon this account with original instruments. A second, cut version of the ending of Part II Scene 2 (unbelievably without With Darkness deep) is given as an Appendix.

The performance and recording are exemplary throughout, with leading singers all in top form. Many articles and full texts in a 100 page booklet. Recommended without reservation.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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