HANDEL: Theodora (complete oratorio), Blu-ray (2011) 

by | Aug 26, 2011 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

HANDEL: Theodora (complete oratorio), Blu-ray (2011) 

Conductor: Ivor Bolton
Christine Schafer (Theodora)/ Bejun Mehta (Didymus)/ Joseph Kaiser (Septimus)/ Johannes Martin Kranzle (Valens)/ Bernarda Fink (Irene)/ Ryland Davies (Messanger)
Salzburg Bach Choir/Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Producer: Magdalena Herbst
Director: Christof Loy

Studio: Unitel/C Major 705804 [Distr. by Naxos]

Video: 16:9 1080i Full HD Color

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish

Length: 189 minutes

Rating: **1/2

This production, given at the Salzburg Festival in 2009, is so loony on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin. But kudos must be given to the organizers for two major efforts: daring to stage a Handel opera at so large a festival and setting, and daring to stage this opera, which is not an opera at all, but an oratorio. At least it was until these folks got ahold of it.

When you listen to it you do begin to understand why Handel did what he did. The action is almost non-existent, is very preachy, and perfectly suited to a stage production—an opera is something else altogether. More on that in a moment. What this production does is exemplify the ideas and ideals of the period instrument movement, and puts many elements of it, as far as opera is concern, into the realm of bedlam. Look at what we have—an operatic stage the width of half a football field, a large chorus, what appears to be an extended period instrument orchestra, all singers having to resort to microphones in order to be heard, an “updated” staging that puts all of the singers in suits, ties, and tuxedos in an obviously non-descript modern setting, all of which testify to an inherent fraudulency in the period instrument movement. I mean, where do you start with all of this? There is no authentic period performance site anywhere in the world that rivals the largeness of this venue. Period performance never knew microphones. It never knew choruses this large, except in certain specific gala instances, like those that occurred in large cities. Modern dress certainly did not appear in Handel’s time, and period instruments are certainly the height of anachronism in this setting—why on earth are they needed here when everything else testifies to a vengeance for the need for very modern instruments instead? It just does not make sense at all.

Regarding the transferal of this oratorio to the stage—such things are not always advisable, and in the case of Theodora it is doubly difficult due to the aforementioned storytelling issues that render the work exceedingly non-dramatic. This was not a popular work in Handel’s time even though it contains some of his most magnificent music. The libretto was based on a corrupted version of the story (which Byzantine rendition essentially regards Didymus as the true hero of the narrative, and Theodora herself has none of the “priggishness” so accused of the Handelian version) where self-sacrificial love between a Christian virgin and a Roman imperial bodyguard in the third-century leads to the martyrdom of both, and the information presented in the libretto speaks of the virtues of the characters more than the action of the play. Christof Loy mentions in the notes that his intentions in this work were to avoid a traditional narrative, but even the most cursory glance at the staged action belies this assertion; the chorus members move around constantly, the principals push, shove, hug, and sing to one another in dramatic fashion. In other words, if your point is to avoid a narrative, which is essential to any opera, why make it an opera to begin with? Just leave it as Handel envisioned it, and God fare thee well. As is we get the strange concept of a hero (Didymus), a man, singing like a woman (counter-tenor) and later disguising himself as a woman in order to convince the powers that be that he is actually Theodora. Voices only could pull this off, but the transferal to action makes it nutty. It boggles the mind and stretches credulity beyond the readily apprehensible.  A straight-up oratorio performance makes far more sense, and for that, best turn to the Nicholas McGegan recording on Harmonia mundi with Lorraine Hunt (Lieberson) and Drew Mintner.

Aside from all of this, the performance is not bad at all. Though I detected some insecurity in the normally reliable Christine Schafer, she does a creditable reading of Theodora. Bejun Mehta is little short of sensational in his singing of the Didymus role, brilliantly brought to life in spite of the ridiculous staging, and he possesses one of the strongest counter-tenor voices I have heard. Joseph Kaiser is quite the dramatic actor (but this isn’t supposed to be emphasized, right?) to the point of shedding real tears toward the end, and sings very well. Johannes Martin Kranzle seems too compressed in his vocalizing, as if there was something in the way of a full and open delivery, though he knows the role well. Bernarda Fink is by far the most accomplished and steady singer of the bunch, easily delivering the most assured performance. The always reliable Freiburg Baroque Orchestra plays superbly while Ivor Bolton gives a very secure reading. Director Peter Sellars opened this particular Pandora’s box a few years ago with Hunt Lieberman and David Daniels at a Glyndebourne performance, and though the setting is still very modern (even more so than this one) it works better because of the emphasis on the drama—it looks more like an opera, though the concept is still quite flawed in my opinion.

If you want to buy this just to listen to it, by all means do—generally it is a good reading, though short of the McGegan. Watching may prove a chore, despite the excellent Blu-ray picture (almost too good—every drop of sweat, of which there is a lot, shows) because at some point innate intelligence kicks in and we simply have to say “what???”

— Steven Ritter

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