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12/07/1999 -  
George Frideric Handel Theodora
Susan Gritton (Theodora), Jean Rigby (Irene), Christopher Robson (Didymus), Paul Agnew (Septimius), Neal Davies (Valens)
Paul McCreesh (conductor)
Gabrieli Consort and Players

This performance, vividly acted but not staged, of Handel's Theodora looks like a stop in a recording tour. Theodora, an initially unsuccessful romance of Christian virtue martyred by heathen vice, seems an unlikely candidate for multiple recordings. But McCreesh's energetic, rhetorical version is different enough from McGegan's lyrical one, and from Christie's bravura performance that accompanies Peter Sellars' wrenching production for Glyndebourne, to justify another recording.

For many people, Sellars' detailed but contentious understanding of Theodora as a dialogue between the pleasures of conformity and ecstasy, with death the ultimate ecstasy, was their first introduction to the work. McCreesh's programme note refers to it as a sentimental drama, and it's a sign of his success that it holds together without reference to Sellars' interpretation (though anyone who has seen that can never think about Theodora in the same way again). Everyone here has well defined feelings reflected and developed in the music.

McCreesh brings out the dance-like rhythms that shape and enrich (or perhaps undercut) the Christians' pieties as much as the Roman orgies, in a way similar to the music in Bach's Passions. His Theodora is a passionate heroine, related to Alcina as well as Ginevra in Ariodante -- her two arias at the start of the second act recall their second-act pairs of aras, one slow and despairing and one agitated. These are muscular Christians -- Theodora and Irene, as well as Didymus, stand and fight in a welter of emotion rather than opening up to suffering. Septimius becomes less interesting, because his conflict is between rhetorically balanced positions rather than emotional extremes. His lyrical praises of kindness and virtue become the gentlest music in the oratorio.

The singers were all well cast. Susan Gritton was a forceful Theodora, singing with impeccable accuracy and unselfconscious heroism. Jean Rigby, who sang Irene in the Glyndebourne Festival in 1997, replaced Susan Bickly, who sang the role in the Glyndebourne Tour in 1996. Rigby started off sounding as if she had a cold, and sounded a little insecure throughout, but was wonderfully expressive and made the day-night-and-storm imagery intensely dramatic.

Christopher Robson, also in the 1996 Glyndebourne Tour, and amazing, seemed slightly uncomfortable without a staging. His voice is rather small, but he gave his arias their full heroic force, and brought out the detailed meaning of the recitative, something which all these performers did more effectively than in Sellars' production, surprisingly. Robson also made the final aria (Streams of pleasure) and duet absolutely heartbreaking. (Didymus had two arias, The raptur'd soul and Deeds of kindness, reduced to their A sections and one, Sweet rose and lily, cut entirely.) Paul Agnew sang sweetly and accurately in Anglican style as Septimius, more a British gentleman officer than a hard-bitten but sentimental old warrior. (He lost The honours that Venus and Flora receive.) Neal Davies' Valens was a poison dwarf rather than the usual idiotic thug. His singing was superbly sinister and threatening, making up for some inaccuracy in the runs with nasty vehemence.

The libretto in the programme included Septimius' final address to the Romans, in which he converts to Christianity, which Handel didn't set. This seemed to cause some confusion about whether the performance was over at the end, and the applause didn't seem totally ecstatic. Perhaps the controlled exercise of emotion really does lead to moderation in all things.

H.E. Elsom



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