Handel's oratorio opera THEODORA (in English)
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) Theodora (1750)
It is said that this was Handel’s favourite among his oratorios, but the public largely stayed away from the three performances (Lord Shaftesbury approved of it, having heard it three times). Handel also thought the chorus at the end of Part 2 (concerning the widow of Nain) was even better than his Hallelujah chorus.
This performance, from Glyndebourne (1996) has three parts or acts; it lasts 206 minutes. The director is Peter Sellars (famous for mangling the Magic Flute in 1990, and known to us for his interesting work on Dr Atomic, by John Adams). In turning static oratorio into active opera, he not only moves the bodies about on the stage, but he has them gesticulating energetically, you will notice. He puts the characters in modern American dress. The two martyrs are given poisons by injection, but they still die on crosses.
The person to see and hear is Lorraine Hunt [Lieberson] (1954 - 2006) who (like Kathleen Ferrier) died of cancer before she could leave us a sufficient legacy of recordings; but this is one to treasure. We know Dawn Upshaw from the Gorecki (Goretsky) sorrowful songs symphony.
Richard Phillips tells me that Theodora was performed in Auckland by Handel Consort and Quire in 2012; he was in the “quire” and also sang the minuscule but in no way minimalist role of Messenger (in Part 1, and Part 3).
Antioch (in Syria) in 304, during the reign of the anti-Christian Roman Emperor Diocletian
Theodora, a Christian of noble birth, a princess, a martyr (Dawn Upshaw)
Didymus, an officer in the Roman army, lover of Theodora (David Daniels, counter-tenor)
Septimius, another Roman officer, close friend of Didymus (Richard Croft)
Irene, a Christian leader, friend of Theodora (Lorraine Hunt)
Valens, President of Antioch (Frode Olsen)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
Overture. [1.1] At a public gathering, President Valens proclaims “a feast, and solemn sacrifice to Jove (Jupiter)”, and whosoever “disdains to join the sacred rites, shall feel our wrath in chastisement, or death”. He places Septimius in charge. Didymus politely objects: many people in Antioch do not offer sacrifices to idols, but are Caesar’s friends. (Valens has a heart attack!) No, they will be subjected to “racks, gibbets, sword and fire”.
[1.2] Didymus is reluctant to enforce the decree: “Ought we not to leave the free-born mind of man still ever free? ... No engine can a tyrant find, to storm the truth-supported mind.”
For his part, Septimius, feels pity for those who suffer under Roman rule, but soldiers must obey orders.
[1.3] In a clandestine Christian meeting, Theodora bids adieu to the world of “empty treasures, fleeting pleasures”; she gives up her jewels and her privileges to pursue nobler joys, in faith and hope. Irene praises her, and disparages prosperity; “True happiness is only found, where grace and truth and love abound”. The other Christians concur.
[1.4] A messenger reports the terrible edict, and urges them to flee. Irene dissuades them.
[1.5] Septimius comes and upbraids them for their foolish disobedience. Theodora replies that it is not rebellion, but perseverance in obedience to God. She is taken away to be a prostitute in the service of Venus.
[1.6] Didymus arrives: Unhappy, happy crew!! Where is my love, my life, my Theodora, my kind instructor in fair virtue’s path?
Irene replies: A Roman soldier led her trembling hence to the vile place where Venus keeps her court (a whore house).
Didymus responds: Kind Heaven, if virtue be thy care, with courage fire me. On the wings of the wind will I fly, with this princess to live, or [with?] this Christian to die.
[1.7] Irene: O love, how great thy power! She praises the young man’s virtue, and the Christians pray that his virtuous love will be rewarded, but they hint that martyrdom may be his reward.
[2.1] President Valens is leading the “heathens” in worship: Ye men of Antioch, with solemnn pomp, renew the grateful sacrifice to Jove. Pour on the smoking altars floods of wine, for Flora (goddess of summer) and the Cyprian queen (Venus). (In this production he is already inebriated, but he avoids having another heart attack.)
The crowd seconds his motion, and adds Jupiter, the cloud-cracker (send her down, Yuwiy, we still say to Yu-piter, Father Jove, when it is raining). And long live Caesar (Diocletian by name, you will recall): Send him victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us (or words to that effect).
And after those thanks to the sponsors of the show, back to the sport of baiting Christians (now more readily available than bears).
Mr President then orders Septimius to go to “the stubborn maid” to remind her that if she makes an offering to the gods of Rome before sundown she will be free; if not, “the meanest of my guards with lustful joy shall triumph over her boasted chastity”.
The mob is sure that Venus will appreciate this; she will be laughing, and applauding her votaries.
[2.2] Theodora is naked (not in this production) in her prison cell, pondering her situation, going through several recitatives and airs. She wishes angels would waft her to the skies as on the wings of a dove.
[2.3] Didymus is with Septimius, and in the closeness of their friendship based on having saved each other’s life in battle, he confesses that he is a Christian; and he is given permission to visit Theodora.
[2.4] As night falls, possibly the final night for the faithful band of Christians, Irene thinks about Theodora’s plight, and calls on Heaven to save her from “unexampled lust and cruelty”.
[2.5] Didymus approaches Theodora; she does not recognise him (his vizor is down!); she thinks he is the first of the gang of rapists; his plan is for them to change clothes (difficult if one is naked); in their love duet, each says to the other: I hope again to meet on earth, but sure shall meet in Heaven.
[2.6] Irene is comforting the Christians. Sleep is impossible with death hovering over their heads; but prayer is their refuge, praying to Christ who can raise the dead to life and joy; they recall his raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17).
[3.1] Strong in hope, Irene and the Christians sing and pray, night and day, even amid thunderstorms and earthquakes.
[3.2] Enter Theodora in the “habit” of Didymus. Irene welcomes Didymus; but Theodora, “discovering herself”, tells them that she has escaped, with the help of Didymus, her “kind deliverer”, as the clothes she is wearing will testify. Heaven has heard her prayer, and sent the generous youth to save a wretched virgin’s fame [reputation], and turn her grief to joy.
[3.3] The messenger’s second edition of bad tidings reports that Didymus has been arrested and that President Valens has now imposed the death penalty on Theodora.
She decides to go to the President to ransom Didymus with her own life. Irene tries to dissuade the Princess, but “Duty calls, I must obey”. Irene laments alone, but she is hopeful that such virtue will be rewarded with “boundless love and joys ineffable”.
[3.4] Valens is interrogating Didymus: Is it a Christian virtue to rescue someone condemned by his imperial authority? Didymus replies that his religion condemns all crimes, including disobedience to just power; if the President had delivered a death sentence, Didymus would not have intervened, but this action was so terrible that Valens would be judged to be odious, and it should be prevented. Valens retorts that it was actually “the charms of beauty, not of virtue, that tempted you to save her”. “ Take him hence, to repentance, or to death.”
[3.5] Theodora arrives and interrupts the proceedings of the court. She has come to pay the debt with her own blood.
Septimius (the soldier-friend of Didymus) is deeply moved by this demonstration of “virtuous courage” by a woman. He calls to mind the rape of the innocent Lucretia in Roman history, and he proposes this solution: “Let justice for the hero plead, and pity save the fair [Theodora]”.
Didymus pleads that he alone should die; Theodora argues that she is the one at fault and should be put to death.
Valens is unrelenting: if they both plead guilty, then they should both be executed; if they will honour the Roman gods they will “fall” as supplicants, and if they despise them they will be offered as a sacrifice to them.
[3.6] Septimius is dismayed that such beauty and valour will be destroyed.
But the loving couple concentrate their thoughts on the rewards they will receive in Heaven, for purity and faith: streams of pleasure, fruits ambrosial, golden thrones, starry crowns, immortality, and eternal rest.
(In the Peter Sellars production they are executed by injection of poison, in a crucifixion stance.)
[3.7] Irene and the Christians (still not rounded up?) ponder on the wonder of love divine and wish to emulate them: “they are gone to prove that love is stronger far than death”.