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Sympathising woe

Festival Theatre
08/10/2003 -  and 13, 16, 18, 20, 22, 27, 29 and 31 August 2003
George Frideric Handel: Theodora

Henry Waddington (Valens), Robin Blaze (Didymus), Jeremy Ovenden (Septimius), Susan Gritton (Theodora), Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Irene), James Elliot (Messenger)

Harry Bicket (conductor), Peter Sellars (director)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Glyndebourne Chorus

Saints have to perform miracles to be recognised as such by the Catholic church. But if anyone prays to St Dorothy of Antioch, a virgin martyr whose gift of celestial fruit and flowers to her persecutors after her death makes her the patron saint of gardeners, it is probably for rain in due season and the departure of greenfly. Merged with a Greek namesake martyred in Alexandria together with Didymus, a Roman soldier, she becomes Handel's and Thomas Morrell's Theodora and seems to have enabled several miracles. The first miracle is the work itself, a masterpiece of expressive economy that explores an almost universal range of emotions using a minimum of musical means, from the bumptious arrogance of politicians and the frenzied cruelty of a mob in pursuit of outsiders, to compassion, protective tenderness, gratitude, despair, endurance, fear and ecstasy. The text seems trite on the page, with its obsessive highlighting of day and night, light and dark, life and death, manly heroism and womanly chastity, freedom and cruelty, and the power of love, all the stuff of sermons and tracts. But Handel's music, almost always measured and ingratiating in its return to moments of beauty, makes the conventional words into something like the language of the soul.

The second miracle is Peter Sellars' production for Glyndebourne. When first seen in 1996, it was clear that the work and the director brought out the best in each other, and, amazingly, found a receptive audience among the pleasure seekers in the gardens. Sellars' interest in kabuki drama, at other times apparently imposed at random, found a wonderful application in the extended rhetorical gestures that track the text and music of every singer and highlight both the polyphony of sound and thought and the coherence of the community. The performers do not so much act out the work as they would in an opera as embody it, so that their physical presence on stage is an expression of the music rather than an imitation of reality, an approach that works particular well for an oratorio. His insistence on an American context is felicitous in a work that could be described as a reflection on the ideological origins of the First Amendment, a dramatic restatement of John Locke's First Letter on Toleration. Handel's audience, for whom "freedom " was at times a synonym for Protestantism, almost certainly saw the persecuting Romans as the Inquisition. But Locke and his successors were also aware of the risk of authoritarianism in any system of government. The bumptious, hedonistic Romans could also be oratorio-going Londoners on the watch for Jacobites, Catholics or mollies out to destroy their freedom and fun. Certainly, the music of the otherworldly Christians in Theodora is not the charming, often sensual music of the Anglican liturgy, or even of the English Jerusalem in Handel's Solomon. Nor, in spite of some four-line hymn forms, are the Christians anything like the more austere but more commercially minded Methodists who were about to emerge in England: Irene's denunciation of wealth as the bane of virtue is the diametric opposite of Wesley's advocacy of the benefits of prosperity honestly achieved. The Christians are mostly complete outsiders, people who chose not to live in the world at all, and less like modern citizens, or Handel's audience, than the Romans. But Sellars' greatest contribution is surely to show the desire for freedom and the pain of tyranny and intolerance as realities, not just triggers for operatic emotion, and to bring out the healing power of love and music. For those who see the world trapped a conflict between two groups who have demonised each other out of any semblance of reality or humanity, this production provides both insight and a kind of comfort.

The third miracle, which would let Theodora be canonized if she weren't already a saint, is the luminous, truly sublime performance of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Irene. Hunt Lieberson was in the original production, and made a major contribution to its impact, in a role which on paper looks marginal, the secure leader of the Christians who leads them in hymns and prayer. In his pre-performance talk, Sellars referred to the things Hunt Lieberson has been through since then: she has married, but has also dealt with and recovered from a dangerous illness and, as he put it, cleaned out her life as a result, in a way that suggests asceticism in its precise sense, the practice of controlled withdrawal from life. One consequence of this is that her performances are rarer, but another is that she here to give them, and on incredible form that you don't need to know her life story to be in awe of. Her expression of the joy of religious peace in "As with rosy steps", one of Handel's most wonderful, gentle creations, is intense and healing beyond words, while her prayers in the midst of the storm in "Lord, to thee each night and day" are terrifying and moving. Everything she does has incredible grace and power, from watchful stillness to stage filling near ballet, all springing seamlessly from the most glorious, mobile voice.

If Hunt Lieberson's powerful presence tilts the balance of authority heavily towards the Christians, Susan Gritton's Theodora has a touching humanity that maintains our sympathy. She is heroic, but much less self contained than Dawn Upshaw in the original season. Always a generous singer, Gritton, a fairly late substitute in the production, seems to have found a natural sympathy with Hunt Lieberson. The rest of the principals, although pretty good and utterly committed, inevitably fall short of the two women. Robin Blaze is attractive and endearing as Didymus, the Roman soldier in love with Theodora, but his singing has haywire moments and lacks the fire needed for "The raptured soul". Jeremy Ovenden sounds like a traditional Handel tenor, and his Septimius is comparatively pallid. As Didymus' soldier buddy who hates killing people, he ought to embody a conflict between duty and humanity that is an equal counterweight to Irene's confidence, but this Septimius is fraught rather than tragically compromised. Henry Waddington stepped in for an indisposed Jonathan Best as Valens, and was entertainingly slimy, though his voice is more baritone than bass baritone, and far too classy for a Handelian thug.

The Glyndebourne Chorus are at the heart of this production and performed superbly as exuberant, beastly Romans and serene Christians. The final choruses of the acts are among the greatest things Handel ever wrote, each slow and elegiac but ultimately uplifting, while the Roman choruses are rough and rip-roaring. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment put as much humanity in the music as the singers. Harry Bicket directed in a comparatively restrained style, far from William Christie's bravura, but combining intensity and movement.

The production tours with a different orchestra and set of principals in the autumn.

HE Elsom



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