From British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies
The Waits of Wall Street
GF Handel: Theodora, The English Concert, Birmingham Town Hall, 6 February 2014.
Having seen, the week before, the outrageous movie The Wolf of Wall Street it was impossible to resist the above heading, stretching the meaning of the word ‘wait’, to introduce this review of Handel’s oratorio Theodora in which the Choir of Trinity Wall Street plays such an important role. The performance of Theodora was given in the auditorium of Birmingham’s Town Hall whose period elegance is only marred by modern light gantries illuminating the stage. The musical director was Harry Bicket a leading exponent of baroque opera now well-known world-wide for his appearances ‘Live from the Met in HD’ conducting Rodelinda, Giulio Cesare and La Clemenza di Tito, coaxing period sound from The Met orchestra. Here he was conducting the period instruments (dominated by the presence of a large theorbo) of The English Concert of which he has been, since 2007, Artistic Director.
Theodora, originally billed as a dramatic oratorio, recounts the martyrdom of Christian Princess Theodora, known to us now as St Dorothea, who escapes a fate worse than death only to die by execution. Theodora belongs to a group of Christians, led by her confidante Irene, who are prepared to defy an edict of the Roman, Valens, that all should worship his gods at a festival of Venus and Flora. Two Roman soldiers, Didymus and Septimius, declare themselves against this edict and Didymus goes so far as to put his life on the line by helping Theodora to escape from a prison cell where she has been condemned to gang rape by Roman soldiery. Hearing Didymus has been captured, Theodora gives herself up in an attempt to save his life but both are executed. The oratorio is best known these days for its notorious production as an operatic version by Peter Sellars for Glyndebourne in 1996, later on tour and on DVD. This divided critical opinion into those taken in by the dramatic effect of the staging with formalised arm waving and gesticulation and a prolonged scene of execution by lethal injection. It was the visual impact of this production which remains in the mind, swamping any musical recollection.
The first notes of the overture miraculously expunged any memory of Sellars’ antics and we were able to concentrate on the unfolding drama as represented in Handel’s music undistracted by visual imagery. The four elements of the twenty-six piece orchestra, the twenty-five singers of the Church of Trinity Wall Street, the two Christian ladies and the three Roman men were brought together under the controlling baton of Harry Bicket to produce a deeply moving performance enhanced by the relevance to contemporary events where tyrants seek to impose their will on religious minorities by brutality and sexual violence. The three men symbolise three attitudes of members of a tyrannical regime: Valens, the ruthless and uncompromising leader, Septimius, initially loyal to the regime but seeking to bring humanity to its rule and Didymus, who has secretly joined the religious minority and is in love with one of its members. Valens was sung by Jonathan Best, bass-baritone, a late substitute in one of the outstanding performances of the evening. Septimius was sung by Kurt Streit and Didymus by countertenor Tim Mead in another outstanding dramatic interpretation. The ladies were Rosemary Joshua (Theodora) and Sarah Connolly (Irene). Both slightly disappointed: although making a full contribution to the whole, their singing lacked the wow factor of great performance, though Theodora’s lonely monologue in prison with flute obligato was beautifully sung and played, by Lisa Beznosiuk But the real heroes and heroines of the evening were the members of the Chorus. Equally at home in the triumphalist music of the Romans and the contemplative choruses of the Christians (a case of the devil having the best tunes) their singing in the long diminuendos which concluded each Act was utterly sublime. Sung in English, the provision of surtitles was an insult to the singers.
This production of Theodora opens up again the question of staged versus concert performance of Handel’s dramatic works. There is no doubt that it was a more enriching experience than the visual distractions of the Sellars’ staged version. This is in contrast to Bicket’s previous visit to Birmingham with the London Concert with the opera Radamisto where the minimal movement of the soloists only emphasised the absence of a full staging. Handel’s judgement should be trusted! The only really successful transition from concert hall to stage that I know is Katie Mitchell’s version of Jephtha but this would have been an opera had it not been for a Lord Chancellor’s ban on the staging of religious subjects. Theodora is such an intense musical experience that any attempt to stage it is misconceived.
17 February 2014
Glyndbourne on Tour: Sellars