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Monday, February 3, 2014

Concert Review: Martyred, Then Returned to Life

The English Concert presents Handel's Theodora.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A man and his harpsichord: English Concert conductor Harry Bickett.
Photo by Richard Haughton © 2013 The English Concert.
Sometimes a composer's best work escapes the notice of his public. Take, for example Handel's late oratorio Theodora which bombed with the London public after just three performances. On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, Harry Bickett and the period ensemble The English Concert made a case for Theodora as one of Handel's most compelling stage works.

This was the first complete Carnegie Hall performance of Theodora, although the Hall has heard excerpts from the score in the pat. Dorothea Röschmann played the title role with simple, stolid faith, affecting in her guilelessness. The soprano did have some trouble with big notes in the exposed passages of "When darkness deep," her voice turning harsh and bright when pressured. However, she brought a resonant humanity to the character, especially in the duet that followed as the two martyrs switch places and Theodora is freed from prison.

After being neglected for almost 250 years, Theodora returned to the repertory in 1996 with a legendary Glyndebourne production directed by Peter Sellars. David Daniels, a veteran of that staging, made his return to the work here. He perfomedDidymus as the one character who undergoes genuine dramatic development. His path from soldier to martyr is not an easy one, and Mr. Daniels' instrument is not as bright and sweet as it was at the start of his career.. But this was still a compelling performance, with the singer falling back on experience to navigate the trickiest passages with success.

The third key role  is Irene, sung with fire and great beauty of tone by the English mezzo Sarah Connolly. This is the opera's key supporting role, a zealous Christian who leads her fellow religious converts in some of the opera's most compelling music. The congregation, played by the Trinity Choir, were at their most compelling in the Act II chorus "He saw the lovely youth," a complex creation that Handel himself ranked among his finest musical achievements.

Kurt Streit was less interesting as Septimus, the Roman who becomes sympathetic to Dydamus and Theodora's cause. Mr. Streit was faced with several long, challenging arias, and was running out of vocal steam by the time of the third act's "From virtue springs each generous deed", a seven-minute marathon for the singer that would exhaust any tenor. Far better was baritone Neal Davies as Valens, the story's scenery-chewing villain.

This performance was anchored by Mr. Bickett's rock-solid conducting and the top-flight playing of The English Concert on a colorful array of period instruments. The small ensemble was crucial to the long performance, supporting the voices and providing tint and setting on the bare surface of the concert stage. Occasionally, these high-caliber players were heard in their own right, in the sinfonias and interludes designed by the composer to indicate a change of scene.

In Theodora, Handel tinkered with the successful formula that had made his oratorios the most popular form of musical entertainment in 18th century England. He chose a subject from post-Biblical history: the martyrdom of a Christian woman and her would-be lover in Antioch during the late Roman Empire, and kept the story's bleak ending. The stentorian choruses of his early works were replaced with a complex, shifting orchestral texture for the Christians. The Roman bacchanals are represented by sprightly dance rhythms, perhaps indicating that a life of sin and debauchery is more fun for all concerned.

As the plot of Theodora spins forth and the final sacrifice of the two main characters become clear, Handel busies himself with the simple human emotion at the center of the drama. The effect of the whole work is contemplative and almost reassuring, enveloping the listener in webs of orchestration and inviting one to consider the serious subject at hand.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.