Theodora / Glyndebourne 1996 / Daniels, Upshaw, Hunt et al. (2)

[part one here.]

The rear of the stage in this production is taken up by a row of glass vessels. They have the appearance of having been smashed and then reassembled; there are gaps or cracks in all of them.

These objects fit so seamlessly into the feel of the production that asking about them in terms of metaphor is probably the wrong way to mention them. I mean, this oratorio is a story about early Christianity and early Christians often talked about themselves as vessels for various things. The female body was also often thought of as a vessel that could be filled or not filled with good or bad things. In early modern genre paintings smashed or overturned glasses were often used to represent female chastity. The point is, you can fool around with ‘glass vessel as metaphor’ for weeks and not exhaust it.

But it makes more sense to ask not what they represent, because I don’t think they actually do represent anything directly in any of the ways I just described – but rather what do they evoke. They evoke a type of spaciousness – a sort of transparent interior architecture that is very still and yet fragile. This quality is in the music too. One of the things I wrote down while listening to this was that there was something ‘introspective’ about it. I don’t think that’s quite the right word, but it’s close. There is the feel of large interior spaces to this music. I wrote this down while listening to the last section of Act I, but it’s present throughout. (The chapter listings on this DVD are not helpful – each chapter is a scene or section rather than an aria, and the listing in the insert indicates only whatever the first words of the scene are.)

This feeling of interior space is beautifully consistent with the abstracted, dreamlike quality of this production. This is in part the production and the performances, and in part the work itself. The sense of ‘who is where and when’ is far less well-defined in an oratorio than it would be in an opera. Which makes sense, of course. If the work is written for soloists and a chorus on stage, with no exits or entrances, you can be a little bit more abstract in the way things are expressed. And it means that when you stage an oratorio, you can have characters entering from and retreating back into nowhere. Irene in particular seems to do this in Theodora, or at the very least that was the case in which I noticed it.

This is an observation, not a criticism. And in fact, I think it works wonderfully. The effect is to place the focus on the characters’ interior states – the impression it gives is of a series of moments of distilled or illuminated emotion, connected via a logic that is not quite the logic of drama. This quality leaves a lot of room for stage direction, and here the stage direction is used to great effect to fill in things, and suggest things, that are implied by the music/text but not necessarily required – e.g. the way Irene seems to act almost as Didymus’s better self in “Defend her, heav’n!” which takes place in the same space Didymus and Theodora are occupying, or the moments of soon-buried ambivalence that Theodora and Didymus both seem to feel about Theodora’s virginity. They could have left alone the potential double meaning of Theodora’s desire that Didymus give her ‘death with your hand and sword’ and Didymus’s reluctance to do so, but the stage direction engages with it – subtly, but I thought fairly plainly. (Also, in the following excerpt, which contains both the aforementioned: Dawn Upshaw’s capacity to remain motionless in that ‘martyr’ pose for so long is more than impressive.)

One thing that occurred to me was that oratorio in this sense is perfect for Regie interpretation. There is a story, but it makes fewer narrative or continuity demands than the drama of most operas, and so one is more free to play with the work’s other qualities.

[next part here.]

2 thoughts on “Theodora / Glyndebourne 1996 / Daniels, Upshaw, Hunt et al. (2)

  1. One thing that occurred to me was that oratorio in this sense is perfect for Regie interpretation. There is a story, but it makes fewer narrative or continuity demands than the drama of most operas, and so one is more free to play with the work’s other qualities

    No silly arguments about “respecting the composer/librettist’s original intentions” either.

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    1. No – but the thing is, when I saw this, even if one does ask that question about original intentions, it didn’t feel as if Handel’s (to the extent we can guess them) would have been violated by this, although of course most of the staging would have been meaningless to him.

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