Handel – Theodora / Salzburg 2009 (1)

We get an unusual kind of bonus in this production of Theodora from Salzburg, directed by Christoph Loy. In Part III, in addition to the regularly scheduled music, we are treated to Handel’s Organ Concerto in G minor, HWV 310. This is not as odd as it might sound – Handel’s organ concertos HWV 306-11 were written to be performed with his oratorios, although they are separate pieces and as far as I know it’s not standard to put this one where it is in this performance. At least, none of the versions of the oratorio for which I could locate the track listing contain it.

The dramatic function of the concerto in this Salzburg production is to put some of Theodora’s inside thoughts on the outside. The additional music is inserted at a key point, after Theodora has been freed from captivity by Didymus but before she returns to give herself up to the authorities. As the music is performed, we get a kind of silent drama in which Theodora’s thoughts about the meaning of her escape are played out.

One of the turning points in the opera (I am going to call it an opera because I have trouble remembering that it is technically an oratorio) comes previous to this, when Didymus visits Theodora in the brothel where she is being held captive and exchanges clothes with her so that she can get by the guards and escape. (Bejun Mehta as Didymus, it must be noted, wears Theodora’s evidently quite stretchy red brothel dress like a champ. I can think of few other countertenors who could pull off that look.) In this production, the clothes-switch hearkens back to the set up of the entire story, in Part I.

The action in this production takes place in a space backed by looming organ pipes and littered with chairs. The characters are in modern formal dress – black suits and white shirts for the men, black cocktail dresses for the women. Except for Theodora, who wears white and later red. Valens (Johannes Martin Kränzle) soon reveals himself as a bully – hitting Septimius, grabbing various members of the chorus, and expecting laughs and slaps on the back in return. He is the sort who one sometimes meets on trains, who sits with his legs as far apart as possible so as to eat up a maximum amount of space and – bonus! – enjoy the effect such deliberately intimidating body language has on others. Theodra&Valens_Act1

And Valens does precisely this to harass Theodora. It’s an assertion of power with a nasty gendered edge. This set-up in Part I gives the clothes-switch later on added weight. Theodora has not only escaped – she has undercut Valens’s assertion of power over her, and she has done so while dressed as a man. Dressed nearly exactly like him, as a matter of fact. And this is what is illuminated during the bonus organ concerto. Theodora knows she has turned the tables, and during the concerto’s first sections, we see her – this section is I suspect intended to be her thoughts, not what ‘really’ happens – recreating that first scene, but this time she matches his splayed legs, elbows him, flicks his face and hair as he had earlier done to her. Knees_revenge

But then the moment of power dissolves. Soon she is surrounded by men, all in suits like hers, staring at her and following her. In a moment of anguish – it seems she is suddenly aware that she has not won, after all – she grabs at him and then falls to the floor apparently in a faint. The music soon returns to the score of the opera, and the story moves on. When she wakes up, she proceeds to give herself up to the authorities with quiet determination. Theodora has thought – or perhaps she has dreamed – about fighting Valens on his own terms, but the thoughts/dream turn to fear and uncertainty and frustration, and in the space between ‘fainting’ in the dream and waking up, she has reached the decision that the honorable thing to do is to sacrifice herself for Didymus. Theodora_raptThe liner notes to the DVD note that at least one critic asserted that Theodora was “one of the most insufferable prigs in literature.” In a sense, I get that. Had I been in Theodora’s place, I would have just performed the damn sacrifice and then tried to talk Didymus and Irene into going out for burritos (in Latin – since we are in the Roman world – I believe that would be second declension neuter, burritum, pl. burriti, “for the burritos” = “burritis“. I forget what the Latin word is for tequila). But preferring burritos to principles is one of the hallmarks of being neither an opera heroine nor an early Christian martyr. And I wouldn’t call Theodora a prig. She’s a stickler. And she has a self-destructive sense of duty. But that’s a little bit different.

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