GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Theodora, HWV 68—D. Röschmann (Theodora), S. Connolly (Irene), D. Daniels (Didymus), K. Streit (Septimius), N. Davies (Valens); The Trinity Choir of New York’s Trinity Wall Street Church; The English Concert; Harry Bicket, conductor and harpsichord [Carolina Performing Arts; Memorial Hall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Thursday, 30 January 2014]
It is flabbergasting to consider in this age in which audiences eager for legitimate theatrical experiences are subjected to so much worthless music that, at its London première in March 1750, Händel’s masterful oratorio Theodora was a resounding failure; and this despite a first-night cast that featured three of the most acclaimed singers in Britain, soprano Giulia Frasi in the title rôle, mezzo-soprano Caterina Galli as Irene, and castrato Gaetano Guadagni as Didymus! Revived only once before Händel’s death in 1759, it was left to subsequent generations to acclaim Theodora as one of the greatest works from a composer whose genius produced a dizzying succession of fine scores. Thomas Morell, the librettist who intelligently distilled ideas drawn from source materials by Robert Boyle and Pierre Corneille into the dramatically cogent text set by Händel, famously recorded an anecdote, likely apocryphal, that has the composer attributing the poor showing of the inaugural performances of Theodora to the work’s denominational affiliations and depiction of goodness, saying that London’s music-loving Jewish population were put off by a Christian subject and that ladies could not bear the story’s virtue. In the same way that, owing to the novel’s turbulent genesis, Dickens named David Copperfield as the favorite among all his children, Händel cherished Theodora as the best of his oratorios. The penchant in the 20th and 21st Centuries for staging Theodora in an operatic manner has proved Händel right: the landmark 1996 Glyndebourne production by Peter Sellars explored the extravagant dramatic possibilities of the score and prompted a full-scale reevaluation not only of Theodora but of Händel’s oratorios in general. Fortunately, modern audiences have discovered what Händel’s contemporaries failed to grasp—that Theodora is one of the most dramatically powerful and musically distinguished works in Western music.
Anyone who heard the performance by Harry Bicket and the English Concert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall cannot have failed to appreciate either the unique expressivity of Theodora or the breadth of Händel’s genius. Perhaps the most arresting aspect of Theodora is that, like the composer’s opera Tamerlano, so much of the music is in a contemplative vein: there are extroverted bravura passages aplenty, of course, but the prevailing mood is one of imminent tragedy. This was palpably but never oppressively conveyed by the playing of the English Concert, led with eloquent virtuosity by concertmistress Nadja Zwiener. The execution of historically-informed performance practices has advanced almost unrecognizably beyond the rough beginnings of a half-century ago. The playing of the valveless natural horns, formerly often a source of cringe-inducing din, was excellent, and all the wind parts—including the lovely recorder obbligato in the ‘Symphony’ that precedes Theodora’s ‘O thou bright sun!’ in Act Two—were beautifully delivered. String timbres were equally pleasing to the ears, with none of the gratingly acerbic sounds of violins’ highest tones that mar many performances. The continuo was superbly realized by Maestro Bicket at the harpsichord, principal cellist Joseph Crouch, and Florida-born William Carter on theorbo. Mr. Carter’s wonderful playing of his fearsomely difficult instrument contributed considerably to the musical elegance and even more meaningfully to the emotional impact of the performance. Beginning with a spirited account of the Overture, Maestro Bicket consistently adopted tempi that were inherently right for the music and for the singers. More than many of his colleagues who specialize in Baroque repertory, he displayed a natural affinity for collaboration with vocalists, and his shaping of scenes disclosed a deep understanding of Händel’s dramatic structures, which are crafted with as sure a hand as in any of the composer’s operas. Fine as the solo numbers were, it was in the choruses that Maestro Bicket achieved his finest results. ‘Go, gen’rous, pious youth’ was paced with ideal gravity, as was the closing ‘O love divine, thou source of fame,’ and every chorus resounded with perfect balance.
The singing of the Trinity Choir of New York’s Trinity Wall Street Church was, in a word, exquisite. An ensemble of twenty-four voices, the Trinity Choir offered both the delicate sounds of a chamber choir where appropriate and the robust tones that Händel’s music occasionally demands. In their opening ‘And draw a blessing down,’ they were a credibly raucous bunch of heathens, and the vigor of their singing in ‘Venus laughing from the skies’ left none of the bawdy implications of the text unexplored. In Christian garb, ‘Come, mighty Father, mighty Lord’ was radiant, but the Choir’s singing of ‘Go, gen’rous, pious youth’ was truly astonishing: the manner in which the hushed repetitions of ‘in glory, peace and rest’ hung on the air at the chorus’s close was unforgettable. ‘He saw the lovely youth, death’s early prey’ drew from the Choir singing of sympathetic grace, and their performance of ‘Blest be the hand, and blest the pow’r’ was stirring. The final chorus, ‘O love divine, thou source of fame,’ brought the performance to a close with an evocation of the redeeming power of love as moving as that of the depiction of the Resurrection in Messiah; and perhaps even more musically fulfilling. The Choir’s singing was remarkable for its tonal security and precision of ensemble, with even the most challenging fugal passages enjoying complete mastery. Moreover, the blend of voices was exemplary, every part audible but none over-prominent. The altos and basses, often the weak links in American choirs, sang with heartening richness, and the sopranos and tenors sustained tones in their upper registers unfalteringly. Steven Caldicott Wilson, a tenor in the Choir, lent his firm, ingratiating voice to the Messenger’s recitatives, further exhibiting the quality of the Choir’s voices. Hearing such glorious sounds from a choir of the size Händel intended for Theodora, it is difficult to imagine why subsequent generations of performers determined that larger ensembles were required. Hearing a performance like that given by the Trinity Choir, one that mined each emotion in Händel’s music, enveloped it in tones that seemed stolen from heaven, and gave it to the audience in golden song, it is impossible to imagine the famously meticulous composer himself having been anything but transfixed.
As Valens, the unyielding President of Antioch, Welsh bass-baritone Neal Davies sang strongly but sometimes employed an over-emphatic delivery that, though clearly rooted in a thoughtful pursuit of drama, distracted attention from the fine quality of his voice. From his first aria, ‘Go, my faithful soldier, go,’ Valens is a character of unchanging cruelty and single-mindedness, traits aptly conveyed by Händel in music of bravura grandstanding. Mr. Davies’s singing of ‘Racks, gibbets, sword and fire’ was fiery, and his account of ‘Wide spread his name’ was winsome. Mr. Davies’s finest singing was done in ‘Ye ministers of justice, lead them hence,’ Valens’s final aria in which both Theodora and Didymus are sent to their deaths. Mr. Davies is the rare bass-baritone whose voice has no difficulties with either extremity of the range, and the evenness of the timbre throughout the tessitura demanded by Händel’s music was an impressive hallmark of Mr. Davies’s performance. He faced no coloratura challenges with which he could not cope smashingly, and he was a commanding presence in the drama.
Septimius is introduced by ‘Descend, kind pity, heav’nly guest,’ one of Händel’s most absorbing arias for the tenor voice. The poise, delicate phrasing, and dulcet tone that Kurt Streit brought to the aria were spellbinding, and this was but the beginning of an uncommonly assured, beautifully-conceived performance. The descending phrases in his opening aria brought ever-increasing vigor and expanding tonal sheen from Mr. Streit, his upper register bright but capable of profound expression. Both ‘Dread the fruits of Christian folly’ and ‘Tho’ the honours that Flora and Venus receive’ were charmingly sung. The divisions in ‘From virtue springs each gen’rous deed’ were dispatched with ease, and Mr. Streit’s technique made a tremendous impression throughout the performance. What proved most memorable was the sheer beauty of his voice, however, and his singing of ‘Descend, kind pity, heav’nly guest’ was an example of the highest standard of Händel singing.
Händel composed for Irene one of the greatest concentrations of his art, ‘As with rosy steps the morn.’ In this aria, and, indeed, in every note that she sang, the versatile mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly gave a masterclass in the art of unobtrusively considerate phrasing. As with Mr. Streit, however, the principal pleasure to be had from Ms. Connolly’s singing was in the unmistakable quality of the voice. ‘Bane of virtue, nurse of passions’ was splendidly sung, the statements of ‘such is, Prosperity, the name’ voiced with beguiling intensity. The outpouring of expressive tone in ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ was awe-inspiring, the depths of emotion all the more touching for the subtlety and calm reserve of Ms. Connolly’s singing. ‘Defend her, Heav’n,’ Irene’s prayer for the preservation of Theodora’s maidenhood, seemed even finer in Ms. Connolly’s performance than it appears on the page, and the extended melodies of ‘Lord, to thee, each night and day’ were unfurled with poetic elegance. Ms. Connolly’s lines in the brief duet with Theodora, ‘Whither, Princess, do you fly,’ trembled with concern for her friend, and she cloaked ‘New scenes of joy come crowding on’ with an unsettling sense of uncertainty and trepidation. Having Irene sing the final recitative, ‘Ere this, their doom is past and they are gone,’ from the side of the stage heightened the sense of loss, with Irene now distanced from Theodora and Didymus by death. This, too, Ms. Connolly sang with sorrow made more piercing by the handsomeness of her tone. In phrasing, in tasteful ornamentation, and in finding in text the impetus for the nuances of her performance, Ms. Connolly confirmed her reputation as one of the most important Händel singers of her generation.
South Carolina-born countertenor David Daniels, whose career has done more than that of any other artist to popularize the work of countertenors in the United States, was on something near best form, his singing of Didymus reaching towering heights of musical excellence. His singing of ‘The raptur’d soul defies the sword’ was energetic, and ‘Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care’ provided opportunities for deployment of his celebrated bravura technique. Mr. Daniels’s exuberant singing of ‘Deeds of kindness to display,’ crowned with stunning high notes, soared, and his performance of ‘Sweet rose and lily, flow’ry form’ was as entrancing a serenade as any damsel in distress might desire. The first of his duets with Theodora, ‘To thee, thou glorious son of worth,’ was captivatingly done. The pinnacle of Mr. Daniels’s performance—and, indeed, of the performance as a whole—was ‘Streams of pleasure ever flowing,’ which was phrased with an abundance of sensitivity that emphasized Händel’s inspired setting of the text. In the subsequent duet with Theodora, ‘Thither let our hearts aspire,’ Mr. Daniels’s tone took on an ethereal quality that aptly conveyed the transfiguration of Didymus’s martyrdom. It is hardly surprising that Händel lavished majestic music on a rôle composed for Guadagni, but hearing it so lushly sung, even by a singer with an acclaimed history in Händel’s music, was a spectacular surprise. The art of countertenor singing may never be universally admired, but the listener who did not surrender to the virtuosity, sumptuousness, and emotional directness of Mr. Daniels’s singing is little affected by the potency of music.
The performance of the title rôle by soprano Dorothea Röschmann was a monumental achievement. ‘Fond, flatt’ring world, adieu’ had the quiet gravitas of a great tragedienne but also a lightness that suggested that, to Theodora, the weight of earthly cares is easily borne when one’s faith promises heavenly reward, but the terror and indignation in the accompagnato ‘Oh, worse than death, indeed’—sung with passion worthy of Rodelinda—and the sincerity of the plea for deliverance in ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’ were indicative of a tangible humanity. Ms. Röschmann’s dignified voicing of ‘With darkness deep, as is my woe’ also confirmed that, for this Theodora, life is as precious as death in the exercise of her faith. ‘Oh, that I on wings could rise’ was similarly evocative, the freedom with which Ms. Röschmann ascended into her rich upper register credibly capturing the note of determination in the music. ‘The pilgrim’s home, the sick man’s health,’ the least troubled of Theodora’s arias, was brightly but meaningfully sung, setting the tone for the gorgeous duet, ‘To thee, thou glorious son of worth,’ in which Ms. Röschmann and Mr. Daniels blended their voices with the finesse of silk threads intertwining. In Act Three, Ms. Röschmann brought to ‘When sunk in anguish and despair’ an air of muted ecstasy, and the dramatic intent of her accompagnato ‘O my Irene, Heav’n is kind’ was startling. ‘Lost in anguish quite despairing’ was not so much a resignation to her impending martyrdom as an embrace of her quest to repay Didymus’s love through sacrifice. When, in the penultimate scene, Ms. Röschmann joined Mr. Daniels in ‘Thither let our hearts aspire,’ the cataclysm of their shared martyrdom was transformed into an act of insurmountable human connection as overwhelming—and as musically satisfying—as Isolde’s Liebestod or Brünnhilde’s Immolation. Matching her colleagues with impeccable phrasing and natural English diction, Ms. Röschmann placed her top notes unerringly, floating tones in both duets with Mr. Daniels to achingly beautiful effect. Theodora is a woman who, in the course of Händel’s score, never enjoys a truly carefree moment, but Ms. Röschmann’s performance enabled the listener to see Theodora as a woman, not an archetype; and a woman for whom love and faith render the greatest tortures mere tests of her soul.
It is almost certain that the music of Händel had never been so graciously performed in North Carolina as in this performance of Theodora, but even now, when Händel’s operas and oratorios are cast with far greater strength than scores by Verdi or Wagner, this performance was something special. That such a group of artists was assembled in Chapel Hill is remarkable, but that they collaborated to create such a magical performance is virtually unbelievable, no matter the venue. The three-and-a-quarter hours of Händel’s score rushed by in a flash, and the endeavors of this outstanding ensemble—Dorothea Röschmann a Theodora of uncompromising virtue and even surer musicality; David Daniels a meltingly lyrical Didymus metamorphosed by love; Sarah Connolly an Irene of columnar dignity and tones like finest marble; Kurt Streit a Septimius of unbending devotion and amber voice; Neal Davies a vigorously menacing Valens; the simply superlative Trinity Choir and English Concert; and the dedicated, fastidiously-prepared Harry Bicket—engendered a performance that, as a presentation of Händel’s Theodora and a musical experience, can never be duplicated.
The English Concert’s 2 February performance of Theodora in Carnegie Hall (New York) will be recorded for broadcast on WQXR on Sunday, 16 March 2014, at 7:00 PM EST.