Theodora at the Barbican

Rosemary Joshua
sang the title role with Tim Mead as Didymus, Sarah Connolly as Irene, Kurt
Streit (replacing Andrew Kennedy) as Septimius and Neal Davies as Valens. The
choir was the Choir of Trinity
Wall Street
on a visit to Europe.

Theodora was in many ways Handel’s most unsuccessful oratorio; a
small group of admirers liked it but the general public did not. His only
sacred oratorio set in Christian times, it used a non-biblical story and is
essentially an exploration of inner faith with a heroine who goes off willingly
to martyrdom. Handel’s concerns in the piece transcend Revd Thomas Morrell’s
libretto. Time and again he subverts Morrell’s underlying meaning, using his
music to give Theodora an intensity of faith which overcomes the libretto’s
combination of piety and masochism, and to make the chorus of Romans into jolly
hedonists rather than Morrell’s rather vicious crew. This was something that
Handel did also in Jephtha, another oratorio with words written by
Morrell. Morrell seems to have been a swift and adaptable writer, able to a
certain extent to shape himself to Handel’s requirements. But also, Handel in
his late period seems to have discovered how to work the text to his own inner

The oratorio has had a more frequent life more recently, partly due to Peter
Sellars production at Glyndebourne with a performance of remarkable intensity
from Lorraine Hunt as Irene. Despite a certain modishness, Sellers showed that
the oratorio’s concerns could work for a modern audience. The problem, for any
concert performance, is to create that sense of intensity and inner life.
Neither of the two female protagonists, Theodora and Irene, has any arias of
real action; their musical material is virtually all concerned with faith and a
sense of the divine. One of the virtues of the Barbican performance of
Theodora was that both Rosemary Joshua (as Theodora) and Sarah
Connolly (as Irene) gave a very real sense of intense inner life. You didn’t
have to believe in God, but my goodness they made you understand that these two
women did.

Joshua brought a simplicity and a radiant intensity to the title role which
made the character live. Technically the music seemed to hold no challenges,
from the opening moments of her first aria Fond flatt’ring World, adieu,
you felt she really meant it. Handel helps things along here by the
austerity of his orchestration, with unison violins, and in all of Theodora’s
arias there is a sense of Handel paring the music back in some way. Joshua
brought a very fine sense of line to the music; in an aria like Angels’
ever bright
she combined this with a lovely fragility of tone, supported
by just solo strings making the piece feel very intimate.

In the act two prison scene, Handel creates as a sequence of symphonies with
flute solo alternating with arias for Theodora. With Darkness deep was
both profoundly beautiful and rather touching, whilst O that I on Wings
cou’d rise
combined superb passagework with a quiet intensity. This,
complemented by the gravely beautiful flute solos, gave a sense of Theodora’s
struggle and journey, making her a rather more human and touching figure. This
sense of being rather touching in fact this applied to Joshua’s subsequent
arias too but you neither felt short changed not restless, as she took us on
Theodora’s inner journey towards the glorious climax. The final solo number
starts out as a solo for Didymus, with Theodora joining him in the second verse
(effectively when you expect the da capo). It is a magical musical
effect, and one hear given full value by the way Joshua and Tim Mead, as
Didymus, combined voices with fine control, balance and a sense of perfect

The role of Didymus was written for Gaetano Guadagni, the castrato who came
to England as part of a two-bit musical troupe and left a fine artist thanks to
coaching from Handel (and the odd acting lesson from David Garrick). Didymus
was the last part Handel wrote for him (12 years later Guadagni would premiere
Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice). It isn’t a really showy role, it was
clearly written for a singer who liked a plainly expressive line. Tim Mead sang
with a lovely centred tone, quite muscular at times. It is easy for Didymus to
sound like a wimp, and without any posturing Mead gave us firmness, decisive
almost, combined with evenness of tone and moments of great beauty. In his
first aria, The raptur’d Soul, Mead showed all these virtues combined
with some fluently even passagework. In Kind Heav’n Handel alternates
moments of quiet rapture with more active passages, and Mead made the contrast
count. He conjured some magical tones for the gentle rapture in the da
and was suitably decisive in the faster passages. In act two
Deeds of Kindness was notable for the sense of long line and
beautifully controlled shape, whilst Sweet Rose, and Lily had fine
grained tone, touching simplicity and a fabulous violin solo. Handel’s first
duet for Didymus and Theodora comes in the prison scene towards the end of act
2 and, as with many of Handel’s most expressive arias, the ritornello includes
a expressive role for the bassoon set free from the bass line. Here Mead and
Joshua were perfection itself, combining with control and balance whilst still
expressive. Mead gave a sense of fine tone and firmness of purpose combined in
his final aria, which led up to the final duet.

The role of Irene is, to a certain extent, a passive one. She fills the
position of confidante which is important in many of the oratorios and often
allocated to an alto voice (think Micah in Handel’s Samson). As such
it can easily veer into routine. But Handel takes Morrell’s platitudes and
makes them live, giving a real sense of Irene’s faith; the role is a gift for
an expressive singer. Sarah Connolly brought a quiet dignity and intensity of
purpose to her singing; like Mead she gave the character a sense of firmness of
purpose by musical means. Connolly combines richness of tones with a certain
austerity, the purity of her line perhaps; this means that she can be
expressive without being voluptuously womanly. Here Irene was all cool dignity
and inner fire. This counted in her opening aria Bane of Virtue which
musically is surprisingly perky, albeit with a beautifully dignified middle
section. Irene’s main contribution to act two is the aria Defend her
to which Connolly gave a lovely sense of shape and line, combining
with really fined down tone to make something really profound. Irene opens act
three with more dignified passion, and Connolly made it richly toned and
expressive, bringing vivid brilliance to the runs in the middle section. Her
duet with Joshua, Whither Princess was a lovely contrast of emotions
from the two singers (relatively unusual in baroque music where there was a
tendency to ensure that both characters had the same affekt). Irene’s
final aria had a sombre melancholy to it, off set by the profound beauty of
Connolly’s singing.

Kurt Streit was replacing Andrew Kennedy as Septimius. The role was written
for the tenor Thomas Lowe; Lowe we are told had a rather finer voice than the
great John Beard, but as an actor was something of a block. As a result,
Handel’s roles for Lowe tend to be nonentities (Lowe was also the high priest
in Solomon), albeit with lovely arias. You wonder what Handel would
have made of the drama had Beard been available to sing (as he did in Handel’s
subsequent oratorio Jephtha when Beard sang the title role). Streit
brought a fine technique and a lovely sense of commitment to the role, plus a
fabulous feel for the words. All the singers had admirable diction, but Streit
seem to go out of his way to use them expressively. though something this
veered into over emphasis. Each aria was well done, and it says much for
Streit’s performance that most of the time he made us forget the role’s lack of
drama. Part of the problem lies in Morrell’s original conception, which had
Septimius converting to Christianity; Handel omits this and leaves the role
without its central raison d’etre.

Neal Davies was Valens, the Roman Governor that Handel was at pains to paint
was being upright in his way, and not too vicious. Davies was suitably vivid
and his familiar vibrant way with Handel’s passagework worked well here, giving
the character life. I particularly liked the way the spat out the words in
Racks, Gibbets, Sword and Fire. The character forms a nice
counterpoint to the music for the other characters, and Davies clearly relished
the contrast and opportunity.

This sense of contrast is embodied in the role of the chorus who play both
Romans and Christians. As ever, Handel differentiates them. The Romans are
jolly hedonists (what Richard Wigmore in his programme note described as a
counterpoint free zone), whilst the Christian choruses are grave, with a
well-wrought beauty and included some of Handel’s finest work. He himself
highly rated He saw the lovely Youth which concludes act two. The
choir of Trinity Wall Street numbered some 24 singers and sang with poise and
focus, bringing a nice feel for Handel’s line and structure. They made a rather
low-key start as the Romans, but soon picked up giving the Roman choruses a
nice crispness and infectious rhythmic impulse; these Romans were clearly great
dancers. By contrast, the Christian choruses were richly textured, with a fine
sense of line; perhaps too fine, as I would have liked them to make more of the
words. He saw the lovely Youth combined controlled and sombre opening
with a crispy vivid second part into something that was intense and profound.
The final chorus, was simply magical, both in terms of control and
expressiveness; a fitting summation to a very fine performance indeed.

Harry Bicket played the harpsichord, joined on the continuo by theorbo and
chamber organ. This had the disadvantage that in the bigger arias, when Bicket
conducted, we had a continuo of theorbo and organ which is incorrect. This sort
of piece deserves a second harpsichord player so that the organ continuo can be
restricted to the choruses and to the other moments when Handel explicitly
writes for it. The textual history of Theodora is not uncomplicated and no
details of the edition used were given in the programme, which I think is a
grave drawback.

The evening was performed, correctly, with two intervals which gave us an
early start but meant that Handel’s pacing of the work was respected.

Handel uses quite a large orchestra, included trumpets, horns and flute,
though these instruments are used sparingly. The English Concert brought a
nicely grave tone to the work, giving it some beautiful tone and making
Handel’s at times austere orchestration count. The moments when we were fined
down to continuo and solo instruments were lovely indeed. Bicket controlled
everything with a fine sense of speed and pacing. He kept some movements
moving, without seeming rushed and gave the whole work a feeling of steady
progress. Theodora isn’t a short work and the opening act, in
particular, can seem rather slow but here we were kept entranced from the
opening of the overture.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Theodora: Rosemary Joshua, Irene: Sarah Connolly, Didymus: Tim Mead,
Septimius: Kurt Streit, Valens: Neal Davies. Choir of Trinity Wall Street, The
English Concert. Conductor: Harry Bicket. 8 February 2014, Barbican Centre,

image_description=Rosemary Joshua [Photo by Ruth Crafer]
product_title=Theodora at the Barbican
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Rosemary Joshua [Photo by Ruth Crafer]