Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Performance of Handel's Theodora at St. Martin-in-the-Fields

A blue handbill was thrust into my hands last Thursday when I was walking through Trafalgar Square. Normally I resist, but this time I didn't and when I looked at it I saw that it was advertising a performance of Handel's Theodora, an oratorio about the Christian martyr Theadora and her Roman soldier/lover Didymus. This is rarely performed (one begins to surmise why) and I knew I would be back to hear it.

It was possible to get a ticket for the performance on the night of the performance in this popular area. Trafalgar Square was still quite crowded, even in the rain when I got there. St. Martin-in-the-Fields is across the street from the National Gallery which was looming over the square in the diminishing light. The Belmont Ensemble performed, and by candlelight, an ambiance not to be resisted. The performers were brought out and in due course (bows, shuffling, rustling, some last-minute coughs) the performance began.

The story is improbable. Theodora refuses to participate in a pagan festival and so liable to the ire of Valens, the governor of Roman occupied Antioch. Didymus takes her part. Septimus, who has to enforce this, would like to be tolerant. This cannot end well. We know Theadora and Didymus will have to die together.

But this is not opera, yet. It is an oratorio. Lines are sung rather than sung/acted. Can the music carry the interest of the audience? I found that it could. It was entrancing, in fact. Richard Rowntree sang a remarkable tenor joined with Elizabeth Weisberg in two memorable duets. I returned with interest after the intermission and found that Handel, the musical showman of the Royal Fireworks Music, had saved the better for last. We were spared the agonies of dying (as we might not have been in opera) in an a set of abstract but beautiful closing pieces. Handel said that he preferred this oratorio over The Messiah.

Wikipedia has a full entry on Theodora which I was actually able to read on my iPhone before the performance began. More surprisingly, there is a video recording of "New Scenes of Joy" from the oratorio on You Tube which is accompanied by the the score moving along to the music. (I of course left this for later.)

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