Prom 74: Handel’s Theodora

Certainly, connoisseurs among his own circle spoke favourably of the
oratorio. The Fourth Earl of Shaftesbury wrote to Handel’s friend James
Harris, on 24th March 1750: ‘I have heard [Theodora]
three times, and venture to pronounce it, as finished, beautiful and
labour’d a composition, as ever Handel made.’ But, he added, ‘The Town
don’t like it at all’.


It was one of Handel’s biggest flops. The first performance on 16 th March 1750, at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, was followed
by only two further performances that season (audiences were so poor that
Handel undertook radical revisions), and one further single-performance
revival in 1755.

The libretto by Thomas Morell takes us to 4th-century Antioch,
where the Roman governor, Valens, has proclaimed that in celebration of the
Emperor birthday all citizens must make sacrifice to Jove and join in a
feast to the Emperor’s honour. In facing the threat of death for her
refusal to abide by Valens’ decree, the Christian princess Theodora displays religious fidelity, personal integrity and steadfast
bravery which are equalled by the Roman soldier Didymus who, loving
Theodora, pleads for clemency and then attempts to save her by sacrificing
himself in her place.

Why did this composition by the man who during the 1730s and ‘40s had
single-handedly developed the unique form of the English oratorio,
combining elements from Italian opera seria, English anthems and
other forms, which such public and financial success, fall so flat on
public ears? Various reasons have been proposed: the preachy moralising and
solipsistic self-righteousness of the one-dimensional characters, the lack
of ‘action’, the unfashionably tragic ending. With regard to the latter,
Ruth Smith (in ‘Comprehending Theodora


) observes that Handel chose not to set Morell’s conclusion, in which the
courage of Theodora and Didymus during their execution resulted in the
conversion of Septimius and a thousand Roman onlookers. We can only
speculate why Handel rejected this ending (and also the ‘hallelujah’ which
Morell supplied as a replacement) but the librettist’s original conclusion
would have supplied some invigorating uplift; and, would have overcome the
aloof detachment which seems to perfume the noble-born Theodora, whose
Christian devotion is not used in service of her people.

That said, while Handel was later reported by Morell to have wryly
commented that the Jews would not come because it was a Christian story,
and the ladies would not come because it was a virtuous one, there would
seem to have been much for Handel’s audiences to admire and enjoy in Theodora: bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of persecution,
the loving constancy of youthful devotion, unwavering acceptance of and
submission to the will of God – after all, one would expect them to have
shared Theodora’s confidence in the blessings of heavenly after-life.

There is certainly no lack of potential for drama here. Though Theodora eschews heroic spectacle and grandeur, Handel’s other two
late oratorios, Susanna and Jephtha, similarly place
human drama centre-stage; and the conflict between human love and spiritual
devotion surely invites the sort of vigorous emotional energies that Peter
Sellars generated at Glyndebourne in 1996 when he put Theodora on
the operatic stage, focusing on the rousing power of Theodora’s religious

There were, however, few stirring emotional heights or peaks of dramatic
intensity in this performance of Theodora in the penultimate
performance of this year’s BBC Proms season by Jonathan Cohen and
Arcangelo. There was music-making of exquisitely beautiful poise
and sensitivity, and Cohen directed his singers and musicians in a
performance of utmost care and conviction, fashioning effectively broad
canvases. He established a mood of apt solemnity, but the stylish playing
of his 38 instrumentalists did not lack rhythmic buoyancy or crispness of
articulation. Handel claimed that ‘He saw the lovely youth’ was the best
chorus he ever wrote, and the 36-strong chorus gave no cause to dispute
this, though it was perhaps a ‘polite’ rather than rendition fired with
revolution. The female voices frequently provided radiance and freshness;
muscular strength and vigour came from the men; the diction of all was
excellent. The homophonic blend in ‘Go, gen’rous, pious youth’ warmed the

There was, however, a lack of emotional variety: though there were moments
of expressive intensity, serenity was the dominant mode. Even though the
syncopations had a lively spring, the Romans’ orgy at the start of Part 2
was a tasteful homage to Caesar rather than a hedonistic knees-up. Perhaps
the Royal Albert Hall is simply too large a venue to communicate a
sufficiently realistic human drama to overcome the characters’
tendency towards poised detachment.

The singing of the cast of five soloists could scarcely be faulted. In the
title role, Louise Alder tackled the task of embodying a Christian martyr
to match that of Handel’s other Gospel-derived oratorio with characteristic
composure and vocal sweetness. She captured Theodora’s true nobility from
her first Air, ‘Fond, flatt’ring world, adieu!’, accompanied by lovely
smooth strings, and occasional flared with frissons of passion, as
expressed by the decorative ornaments which adorned the da capo repeat of
‘Angels, ever bright and fair’, here expressing the ecstatic consolations
of faith as she was led to prison. Theodora’s double-scene aria from her
prison cell, which closed the first part of the performance, sank low in
long mellifluous lines of unwavering devotion and glowed with colour at the
top, injecting the sort of dramatic elevation that Handel often uses a
closing choral number to provide. But, the very beauty of her singing
seemed to carry Alder’s Theodora into heavenly realms and weaken our
ability to feel and share her human dilemmas.

Alder’s two duets with Iestyn Davies’ Didymus – a role written by Handel
for Guagagni – were a highlight. In his Airs, Davies projected into the
large arena with apparent effortless, and never at the expense of grace of
phrasing or purity of tone. ‘Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care’ in which
the conflicted Roman calls upon God to fire him with courage to save the
captive Theodora, was animated and agile, the wide range easily
encompassed. But, at the final reckoning – while Didymus’s sombre piety
(‘Or lull’d with grief’ as a treat) was not in doubt – I hadn’t quite been
convinced of Didymus’s inner schism between soldierly duty and personal

Handel gives Septimius some lovely music to sing, and the lovely tone of
Benjamin Hulett made a strong impression, especially in his Part 1
Recitative and Air, ‘I know thy virtues … Descend, kind pity’. The high
lines seemed to present no difficulty, although elsewhere Hulett’s tenor
did not always carry with sufficient strength. Projection was also a
problem, at least initially, for bass Tareq Nazmi, whose Valens rather
lacked focus and presence in Part 1, though the characterisation of the
later recitatives was more strongly shaped. Irene, Theodora’s friend and
fellow Christian, can – as the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson showed in
Sellars’ production – become the emotional core of the drama, but here Ann
Hallenberg’s elegant singing was too charming and emotionally disengaged
from the text and context to convince me of the sincerity and depth of her
love for her friend. ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ was charmingly sung, but
Hallenberg might have been singing about the coming of springtime, rather
than stirring her fellow Christians to forbearance in the face of religious

On this occasion, Cohen and his musicians made a superb case for the
musical magnificence of Handel’s Theodora but the oratorio’s
dramatic energies and emotional relevance were sadly absent.

Claire Seymour

Prom 74: Handel – Theodora

Valens, President of Antioch – Tareq Nazmi (bass), Didymus, a Roman Officer
– Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Septimius, a Roman Officer – Benjamin
Hulett (tenor), Theodora, a Christian – Louise Alder (soprano), Irene, a
Christian – Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano); conductor – Jonathan Cohen,

Royal Albert Hall, London; Friday 7th September 2018.


Quoted in

Music and Theatre in Handel’s World: The Family Papers of James

, ed. Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2002).


Eighteenth Century Music
2/1 (2005): 57-90.

image_description=Prom 74: Handel – Theodora, performed by Arcangelo conducted by Jonathan Cohen
product_title=Prom 74: Handel – Theodora, performed by Arcangelo conducted by Jonathan Cohen
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Louise Alder (Theodora) and Iestyn Davies (Didymus)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou