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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Theodora (1750) – Oratorio in three Acts to a libretto by Thomas Morell
Theodora – Katherine Watson
Didymus – Philippe Jaroussky
Irene – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Septimius – Kresimir Spicer
Valens – Callum Thorpe
Messenger – Sean Clayton
Orchestra and Choir of Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Director: Stephen Langridge
Film Director: Olivier Simonnet
rec. Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, France, 13 & 16 October 2015
NTSC DVD All Regions. Dolby Digital 5.1 ERATO 9029588990 [182:00]
Handel attributed the relative lack of success of Theodora’s premiere run - now regarded as one of his greatest dramatic works, and often staged - to the notion that the Jews would not come because it is a Christian story, and the ladies would not because it is a virtuous one. Stephen Langridge’s production does not require us to be quite so partisan with respect to the oratorio’s religious affiliations which it sets to one side, but raises the stakes in its moral dimension by seeing it in terms of nothing less than the eternal war between freedom of thought and action, and oppressive, violent intolerance.
If Christianity is one of three religions of the book, that symbol is co-opted by Langridge’s concept for this production and widened out into a potent argument for liberty of conscience generally, with the Christians’ brandishing various volumes in the earlier part of the drama, and their pointed, if somewhat contrived, action of standing them upright around the stage at a couple of points during the narrative subsequently.
The majority of Langridge’s dramaturgical tricks are brought out of the hat in Act One, and thereafter the drama remains visually low-key, for example with Theodora’s imprisonment realised by nothing more than her languishing in a simple metal-frame bed during Act Two. As this implies, the production is set in modern times, with the characters in military uniform, and the guests who are invited to the celebrations in honour of the Emperor’s name day clad in smart ball dress, though this descends to a drunken revel by Act Two. The oversize sculpture of the Emperor’s head, however, recalls the megalomaniac dictatorships of the middle 20th century, although there are, of course, still enough of those about today. But the outside world otherwise, and tellingly, barely impinges upon the production’s austere world as its sets conjure up the military regime of this unspecified place, with shifting, confining walls often implying physical as well as psychological repression, and the containment of dissent. The backdrop of a huge sun at the end of Act One, dazzling the stage with light, surely registers metaphorically as the Christians’ aspirations to hope and freedom, rather than the more literal incursion of either this world or the next. The memory of those who have disappeared or been murdered, including Theodora and Didymus, are hauntingly and unsentimentally preserved with their photographs displayed on the walls at the end of the work.
Other visual aspects of the production and setting are arresting and uncompromising. The severe tone of William Christie’s interpretation of the Overture sets the tone for the drama to come, and already during that prelude a murdered body is seen slumped up against a wall, smeared with blood. Further blood-stained walls are revealed during Valens’s vicious aria Racks, gibbets, sword, and fire to indicate the butchery that goes on in this violent regime, and henchmen come on menacingly to drag away some of the unsuspecting party goers. The fact that Theodora first appears in a ball dress strikes a contrast with the plain white clothes of the cohort among whom she comes – ostensibly Christians, but in this production presumably dissidents or outcasts – visually setting up the theme of her resignation from the iniquities and vanities of the society around her.
Katherine Watson and Philippe Jaroussky constitute a well-matched pair as the dissident lovers Theodora and Didymus with the simple nobility and directness of their singing. Their unwavering faith in the principles for which they stand is expressed with ravishing purity in Jaroussky’s case with The raptured soul defies the sword, and with unflinching steadiness by Watson as Theodora contemplates the horror of being forced to become a temple prostitute in Angels ever bright and fair. Her sequence of numbers in Act Two, starting with Oh thou bright sun expresses very little of any torment or grief, though, and so misses something of a necessary human dimension in this characterisation. By contrast, the angry authority of Callum Thorpe’s performance as Valens is impressive in conveying precisely any such lack of humanity in the ruler’s promotion of vicious persecution against those who think or act differently from official fiat.
Kresimir Spicer’s Septimius is generally agile and sympathetic, though sometimes dry of tone. Stéphanie d’Oustrac makes a powerful impression as Irene even despite her imperfect grasp of English vowel sounds which often issue in a strange sort of drawl. The choir of Les Arts Florissants also provide a musically astute contribution to the drama, whether as Theodora’s fellow persecuted Christians, or the more epicurean pagans who revel in the celebrations underway, as in the raw, mocking taunts of Venus, laughing from the skies. Not the least pleasure of this performance is William Christie’s conducting a nuanced but dramatically cogent reading of Handel’s score.
Christie is a veteran in this work, having also led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a somewhat more vigorous, but less psychologically sensitive account of the music in the celebrated production by Peter Sellars for Glyndebourne in 1996. As that is also set down on DVD, this latest recording inevitably invites comparison. From a purely musical perspective at best it only equals the earlier video which boasts Lorraine Hunt (as she was, before adding Lieberson to her name), as well as Dawn Upshaw, David Daniels, and Frode Olsen. But one would hardly go to a DVD version for the musical performance alone, especially as there are very fine performances on CD already such as under the direction of Paul McCreesh (probably the most consistently satisfying), Peter Neumann, and Christie again. As a theatrical realisation of this great drama, however, Langridge’s is more subtly drawn than that by Sellars. More than two decades on, groundbreaking as the latter’s interpretation was—as Regietheater, as Handel performance, and as arguing the case for staging Handel’s oratorios—it now looks more like a passing experiment, with its outlandish gesticulations by the chorus appearing corny and naff, like an over-zealous Evangelical prayer meeting, and the distracting close-ups of the solo vocalists in the recorded photography. Purists would not approve either production, but Langridge’s keeps closer to the spirit of Handel’s original in avoiding sensationalism and prurience, and recasting the work as a serious and meaningful comment in contemporary terms upon the still relevant theme of freedom of thought and belief, and the practice of pluralism in social life. Curtis Rogers
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