Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera triumphs in Handel’s Theodora

Theodora: dramatic oratorio by Handel

Produced by Pinchgut Opera
Artistic director and conductor: Erin Helyard; director: Lindy Hume; designer: Dan Potra
The Orchestra of the Antipodes
Chorus: Cantillation (music director: Antony Walker)
Cast: Valda Wilson, Caitlin Hulcup, Christopher Lowrey, Ed Lyon, Andrew Collis, Andrei Laptev

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney

Tuesday 6 December, 2016, 7 pm

I’m glad that last year I broke the ice with Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, for my delightful experience with Grétry’s L’amant jaloux made me more than ready for another.

The title Theodora did rang a bell: my first reaction was that it was an oratorio, as I was fairly sure that I’d recognise the names at least of most of Handel’s operas that have been much performed. Furthermore, it was in English and I knew that Semele was Handel’s only English opera (if you don’t count Acis and Galatea).

But nowhere in the publicity did the word ‘oratorio’ appear, not even in the programme itself – apart from an interview with one of the singers where the word ‘oratorio’ slipped past. But a quick check in my reference books confirmed it: his second to last. I’ve no doubt that the company had guessed, probably rightly, that the Or… word might have deterred prospective opera customers, knowing that oratorios are usually on religious subjects and are basically undramatic (not necessarily so). I’m sure that, generally speaking audiences for opera and oratorio are fairly different.

However, the piece is far from unknown today, as it has emerged suddenly as one of Handel’s great masterpieces: there have been various performances of it in recent years. Best known in the Anglo-Saxon world would be that by the Glyndebourne Festival in 1996, under William Christie, directed by Peter Sellars, with the unforgettable, late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Irene, Dawn Upshaw as Theodora and David Daniels as the male soprano Didymus. Among others: in Vienna from the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt in 2004; the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 2006 with Christie’s Les Arts Florissants; the Göttingen Handel Festival in 2015.

So far, all my Handel experiences have been good, and anyway, I was confident that Pinchgut would turn even the most unpromising sow’s ear into a rewarding and entertaining silk event.

From both musical and, with slight reservations, the story point of view, it is little short (perhaps not-at-all short) of a masterpiece. And the singing, of principals and chorus, and the orchestra, were world class. Only aspects of the production didn’t quite equal that.

Even though I confess that I didn’t specifically recognise much of the music, it proved great Handel, dynamic, dramatic and often very beautiful and moving. There were moments when it sounded like Bach, especially in the more conspicuously religious passages.

And before I go any further I must remind you that Days Bay Opera are presenting Theodora alongside their Eugene Onegin, with three performances from 11 February.

The story
The story is straight-forward enough and, being an oratorio, it is in English.

It tells the story of the love and eventual martyrdom of Theodora, a young Christian woman, and her lover, Didymus, a Roman soldier, in the city of Antioch.

The Roman governor announces that those who refuse to make sacrifice to Jupiter on his name day will be tortured and killed, the two lovers who are secretly Christians are each determined to sacrifice their own lives to save the other. They cannot bring themselves to comply with the city’s ordinance and eventually die. Interest lies in the portrayal of the chorus of the Roman militia, initially baying for blood, as becoming deeply affected by the quiet courage of the Christian lovers and their friends.

Opera seria in mid 18th century, even handling the most awful crisis, usually turned up a last minute rescue or change of heart by the villain so there was no blood on the floor. Death at the end of tragic opera became OK later in the century and has become the basic stuff of most opera ever since. So for the baddies to win should be no problem for audiences today.

The puff offered by the Royal Northern College of Music for their planned March-April 2017 staging of the work characterises it like this:

“The plot of Theodora resonates to this day as conflicts continue to erupt around the globe. Innocence, love, faith and courage bloom strong and full of promise, only to be struck down by the thirst for power and blind hatred.”

The theme was certainly heavily Christian and the two leads die rejoicing that they’ll be happy in heaven for ever after. I did find the story a bit laborious and piously religious in spite of its moving to modern times. Perhaps that explained why one local review remarked that the portrayal of the Christians failed to suggest the fundamental arrogance, fanaticism, even treachery, that undoubtedly coloured early Christian behaviour and would have aroused more than mild irritation in the authorities.

How it looked and sounded
The job of creating a credible environment for a late Roman story of authority against subversion, becomes almost impossible in sets and costumes of the present day; not that I’m suggesting it should have looked like a traditional production of La clemenza di Tito (set in the first century AD).

It was in modern dress, and one did note the inconsistency with rituals and behaviour that couldn’t be anywhere but in the late Roman Empire. Nothing unusual there. But the bulky and inconvenient furniture on a fairly small stage and the look and behaviour of the characters detracted from an evocation of the period and from the nature of the conflict as portrayed by the words.

The overall concept was the work of Lindy Hume while the design was by Dan Potra, who desgned for Wellington City Opera in the 90s – The Barber of Seville and Rigoletto.

And it struck me as perhaps resonating with what is happening now in a city not far away, Aleppo. Echoes of ISIS might have arisen as the Roman militia and populace in Antioch were harangued by the governor or pro-consul who insisted that any Christian refusing to pay obeisance to Jupiter would be killed or be persecuted. I wondered whether we were supposed to see the Roman rulers as Islamic State and the Christians as, well, Christians, or one of the many mutually antagonistic, anti-Assad factions in Syria. But that didn’t really stack up.

Perhaps a more serious issue was the fact, which I confess only dawned on me as I explored the libretto more carefully later, searching in the libretto printed in the programme book for arias and a duet that I caught in certain You Tube offerings, that it had been cut here and there. I felt that they could well have found room if certain of the over-long da capo arias had been abbreviated.

The singers, two non-Australian, were just wonderful. Australian soprano Valda Wilson sang the role of Theodora, a beautiful voice that soars above the orchestra.

A superb American counter-tenor, Christopher Lowrey, was magnificent in the role of Didymus, a Roman soldier, a Christian secretly in love with Theodora.

His army colleague Septimus was sung by English tenor Ed Lyon, who has extensive European experience in baroque opera, and he too was excellently cast vocally; he finally fails to rescue the couple.

Mezzo soprano Caitlin Hulcup sang the hardly less important role of Theodora’s friend Irene, with equal intensity and vividness.

The Roman Governor Valens was sung with excessive fury, practically unhinged, by Andrew Collis who’s familiar here as Don Magnifico in the 2015 Cenerentola and as Kissinger in the Auckland Festival’s Nixon in China last year. Uncontrolled histrionically, it didn’t really come off.

Individual arias and duets, especially between Theodora and Didymus, were just breathtakingly beautiful; pity we didn’t hear more of them.

Chorus and orchestra
And the wonderful chorus was, like last year in the Grétry opera, the famous Sydney ensemble, Cantillation, strong and entrancingly nuanced made one overlook any of the other minor shortcomings.

The whole assemblage was conducted by the same conductor as last year, Eric Helyard who taught at Vic for a few years (I wonder why he never seemed to do in Wellington what he’s so accomplished at in Sydney. Perhaps he did and I never noticed).

His baroque orchestra – the same as last year, The Orchestra of the Antipodes – an ever-present force: gutsy, elegant, often rhythmically thrilling and in balance with singers and chorus, with an unerring instinct for Handel’s detailed and effective orchestra. They specialised in really rich, throbbing basses – well, two double bass, three cellos and two bassoons, and timpani – as well as gorgeous natural horns and woodwinds: they made marvellous sounds.

Perhaps I’ll end by borrowing some fine words from Sydney reviews: ‘Christopher Lowrey animates a natural sense of line with elegantly stylish ornamentation, energised at times with sinewy agility without losing smoothness.’; ‘wonderful rose colours and freshness in her sound’ (about Valda Wilson); ‘rounded firmness, fluid mellifluousness and natural attractiveness’ (Caitlin Hulcup);  Cantillation in a ‘tapestry of refinement’; Erin Helyard’s magic with the orchestra where ‘in some of the cadenzas time suspended itself for a moment so that truth and beauty could merge’.

If there were the negatives, the positive elements of the work, its production and performance, far outweighed them. Yes, a triumph at virtually every level and from every angle. It was a memorable evening and my journey was magnificently rewarded.


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