Days Bay Opera does it again with Handel’s “Theodora”

HANDEL – Theodora (Oratorio in Three Acts, 1749)
(libretto by Thomas Morell)

Daysbaygarden Opera Company
Director: Rhona Fraser
Conductor: Howard Moody

Cast: William King (Valens, Roman Governor of Antioch
Maaike Christie-Beekman (Didymus, a Roman officer)
Filipe Manu (Septimus, a Roman, friend of Didymus)
Madison Nonoa (Theodora, a Christian noblewoman)
Rhona Fraser (Irene, a Christian)
John Beaglehole (a messenger)

Chorus: (Heathens/Christians) Emily Mwila, Emma Cronshaw Hunt, Sally Haywood,
Alexandra Woodhouse-Appleby, Lily Shaw, Luca Venter, Isaac Stone,
Hector McLachlan, William McElwee

Orchestra: Anne Loeser (Violin, leader), Rebecca Struthers (violin),
Victoria Jaenecke (viola), Eleanor Carter (‘cello), Richard Hardie (d-bass),
Merran Cooke, Louise Cox (oboes), David Angus (bassoon),
Mark Carter (trumpet), Howard Moody (organ)

Canna House, Day’s Bay, Wellington,
Saturday, February 11th, 2017

(Next and final performance: Thursday 16th February, at 7:30pm)

One of the pleasures of reviewing for me is fronting up to performances of music which I simply don’t know, and subsequently asking myself (sometimes in tones of amazement and disbelief) why it is I’ve never encountered this or that work before, finding it so beautiful / profound / thrilling /whatever! Thus it was with this often compelling production of Handel’s oratorio Theodora, a work the composer wrote towards the end of his creative life, and regarded it as one of the best things he’d ever done!

It didn’t get off to a very good start in 1750, the year of its first performance – the consensus of opinion is that Londoners found less favour with the idea of the martyrdom of a Christian saint than with the Old Testament stories which Handel’s previous oratorios had presented. Whatever the case it was played only three times that season, and just once during 1755 before being dropped from the repertoire for well-nigh two hundred years.

According to the work’s librettist, Thomas Morell, the composer himself declared parts of Theodora superior to anything to be found in Messiah, particularly the final chorus of Act Two “He Saw the Lovely Youth”. Naturally Handel was disappointed in the work’s poor reception, though he himself had remarked (again, according to Morell) that his rich Jewish patrons ,who had flocked to hear Judas Maccabeus a few years previously, would probably not be interested in a presentation with such “Christian” themes and characters.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until the famously provocative Peter Sellars’ revival of the work at Glyndebourne in the UK in 1998 that Theodora made a proper “comeback” to the repertoire. It ought to be remembered that this was, of course, an oratorio rather than an original stage work which was inspiring such acclaim/alarm amongst enthusiasts for both genres. Sellars’ production simply put new wine into old bottles, relating the work’s themes of religious intolerance and persecution to contemporary tyrannical practices enforced by certain modern states and rulers.

Perhaps Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay Opera production didn’t generate quite the intoxicating charge of that Glyndebourne affair, but in places it may have effectively “trumped” it! The production’s reduced scale meant the adroit use of a multi-identity chorus whose members at appropriate times merely changed their garb, which here, I thought, worked really well. The staging proclaimed its intentions during the Overture, with chorus members echoing the recent political upheavals in Europe by carrying Brexit-like “Resist” placards, before being moved on by the commando-like armed guards.

The Overture’s grand-gestured opening turned into a nicely-sprung allegro, the players delivering plenty of energy and focus which easily filled-out the performing spaces (unlike with previous Days Bay productions, we were actually inside the house this time). The first solo voice we heard was that Valens, the Roman Governor of Antioch, whose entrance was rapturously augmented by his black-leather-clad brigade, some supporters carrying signs containing the unequivocal message “Make Rome great again”, as well as the more sinister legend “Torture really works”.

William King as Valens delivered a sonorous, strongly-characterised decree, commanding that all citizens commemorate the Emperor’s natal day by taking part in Jovian rites of worship, before similarly dismissing the plea of one of his soldiers, Didymus, for tolerance towards those people who professed a different faith. King brought the same strength and sonorous tones to his threatening “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire”, underlying the contrast of intent with that of Maaike Christie-Beekman’s Didymus, whose dissenting voice expressed all the warmth and pliability of tolerance and concern for those who might fall foul of the Governor in her aria ”The raptured soul defies the sword” – Christie-Beekman threw herself with abandonment into the incredible vocal melismas of the music, despite a couple of occupational spills along the way, emerging with great credit.

I thought the contrast well-drawn between the deeply-felt conviction of Christie-Beekman’s portrayal and the divided emotions of Septimus, a fellow-soldier, sympathetic to dissent, but loyal to his duty as a soldier. Filipe Manu’s assumption of the latter most effectively expressed the character’s inner conflict, his voice securely filling out the phrases of his aria “Descend, kind Pity”, with only a pinched phrase or two drying out the voice in places, not inappropriate to the character’s feelings of stress and conflict.

Theodora’s first entrance, featuring the bright, sweet voice of Madison Nonoa, was accompanied by markedly exposed string lines, suggesting the character’s purity and even isolation in the strength of her belief. Her aria “O flatt’ring world, adieu” carried this idea into even more beautiful and rarefied realms, the singer’s tones full and fresh, voiced accurately and sensitively. Supporting her was Rhona Fraser’s Irene, and the chorus in its Christian garb (having changed sides!), with a serene and radiant “Come, Mighty Father” accompanying the ritualisting lighting of candles.

Not even the entrance of a messenger (John Beaglehole) with his warning of impending arrest of any dissenters from the governor’s edict shook the resolve of the group, with Rhona Fraser investing Irene’s “As with rosy steps the dawn” with plenty of strength and security, emboldening the chorus to give of their best in the canonic “All Pow’r in Heav’n above”, which built to radiant climaxes. The group’s defiant mood disconcerted and frustrated the arriving Septimus, whose recitative “Mistaken wretches” and subsequent aria “Dread the fruits of Christian folly” were given plenty of energy and momentum, Filipe Manu managing the difficult runs with plenty of aplomb and appropriate bluster.

In the exchanges between Theodora and Septimus which followed, each singer “caught” their character’s crisis of moment, Theodora, the captive devastated by her enslavement into prostitution at “Venus’ Temple” as a punishment for her defiance of the Governor’s edict, and Septimus, her captor, torn between sympathy and a soldier’s duty. Madison Nonoa’s reply was to pour all of her artistry and beauty of voice into her character for one of the composer’s most beautiful arias “Angels ever bright and fair”, aided by sensitive and radiant instrumental support from conductor and players – a treasurable and memorable scene.

Didymus’s shock at being told of Theodora’s fate culminated in his resolve to rescue her, in a brilliant show of recitative “Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care” combined with aria “With courage fire me”, Christie-Beekman’s more vigorous sequences excitingly counterpointed a florid violin obbligato solo, generating tremendous excitement. It remained for the chorus to invest Didymus with the Almighty’s blessings (a wonderful “Go generous, pious youth”, as he changed his garb for that of a Christian, before setting off to rescue Theodora.

So ended Act One – to go through and “fine-tooth-comb” the rest of the performance would bog the reader of this review down in largely repetitive detail. Each singer by this time had amply demonstrated what they could do and how well they could”flesh out” each character, and no-one disappointed in those terms. While the production was in many ways “abstracted” by dint of its intimacy and confined spaces, Rhona Fraser’s direction firmly held to the essentials of dramatic interaction, allowing the singers sufficient theatricality to flesh out their characters in a totally convincing way. I did feel the chorus members seemed rather more “at home” with the pagan revels than with the Christian rituals, though that seemed a Miltonian problem as much as anything else, a matter for human nature to answer to!

Enough to say that the playing out of the drama was convincingly achieved, with a fine show of orgiastic revelry from Valens’ leather-clad entourage at the beginning of Act Two, the excesses of which were finely counter-balanced by the same singers’ in their opposing roles as the Christians at the “changeover”of Acts Two and Three (the composer described the lamenting chorus “He saw a lovely youth” as belonging to Act Two, though here the sequence in what the group imagines at first to be the death of Didymus was placed at Act Three’s beginning – but no wonder the composer himself had a high opinion of the piece!

I was puzzled by a curiously inert chorus response to the appearance of Theodora, disguised in Didymus’s uniform, in which she had escaped – however, the ensemble roused itself sufficiently to convey most effectively both the Heathens’ wonder at the dignity of the lovers’ response to their own deaths (“How strange their ends, and yet how glorious”), and the final Christian affirmation of the work – “O Love divine, thou source of fame”. here a properly and appropriately moving conclusion.

Each character brought a comparable intensity to his or her role in this playing-out of the story – William King’s Valens, drunk with power during the revels of Act Two, remained an imperious and implaccable presence in the face of pleas from various quarters to spare the lovers’ lives. The agony of Didymus’s soldier friend Septimus became more and more apparent as the denoument approached, from expressing his support for Theodora and Didymus in Act Two, to pleading to Valens for their lives in the final scene. Filipe Manu here brought a full and heartfelt outpouring of tones in “From virtue springs each generous deed”, ennobling his character further in doing so. And the Irene of Rhona Fraser, though following a less tortured moral trajectory, rewarded her part with steady, well-rounded vocalising, readily conveying her real human sympathy and conviction of faith in “Defend her, Heav’n”, sung over Theodora as a prisoner in Act Two, and her freshly-wrought and unquenchable hope in her release in “New Seeds of joy come crowding on” in the final Act, just before the final tragedy’s enactment.

Ultimately it was left to the two main protagonists to properly “carry” the essence of the story’s dramatic and emotional weight, with the help of all those mentioned, along with the instrumentalists and conductor. Maaike Christie-Beekman’s Didymus’s journeyings through what seemed like an entire gamut of emotion to a fulfilment of love reunited in death was classic operatic stuff, comparable in impact to other, later versions of the same, such as that of another soldier, Radames, in Verdi’s Aida, or the love-death of the knight in Wagner’s Tristan, each of these characters confident of progressing towards a loving reunion in another life.

Madison Nonoa’s Theodora was the object of Didymus’s desire, though less passive than that description suggests, her character embracing the idea of salvation in tandem with her once-heathen lover, for whom she was ready to sacrifice her life alone. Handel responded to these characters and their situations with some of his greatest music (he himself thought so too!), nowhere more exquisite than throughout Act Two where the lovers are reunited after Theodora’s arrest when Didymus with his friend Septimus’s help finds her in prison. Didymus sings his enamoured “Sweet Rose and Lily”, then tells Theodora he has come to help her escape though Theodora would rather Didymus kill her and release her unto “gentle death”. Didymus rejects her plea – “Shall I destroy the life I came to save?” and urges her to trade places with him and take his clothes and escape – but Theodora laments “Ah, what is liberty or life to me that Didymus must purchase with his own?” – such heartfelt stuff, and here, by turns, so gutsily and sensitively articulated, voiced and, above all, sung!

The pair’s subsequent duet in which their absolute trust in one another and in the mercy of a Higher Power, enabling them to meet “again on earth” or “in heaven” brought forth an exquisite intertwining of impulse, here full-blooded and forceful, and then rapt and breath-catching, an interaction that came full circle in the final scene of Act Three with their farewell duet “Thither let our hears aspire”. It was singing, and playing, which truly for we in the audience “woke the song and tuned the lyre”, and left us marvelling at the seeming endless invention of its composer. It just went to show that, for our delight, the joys of such music and, as here, its sensitive and whole-hearted presentation, are endless. In the midst of that realisation I felt truly grateful to be there, to Howard Moody, the conductor, to Rhona Fraser the producer, and to all who made the presentation of this glorious music such a profound and for me unforgettable experience.

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