Handel – Theodora / Salzburg 2009 (2)

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Theodora_Didymus_death_grip2As noted, Theodora is a stickler. In the original story the oratorio is based on, Theodora is tossed into the brothel specifically because she has been ordered to marry and she refuses, preferring to dedicate her life to religion. The marriage part is not in the oratorio. But either way, she is one of those people who stick to principle, consequences be damned. At the same time, she is still a very much a human being. The music itself reveals it, although the story does too if you pay attention.

This is one of those operas where the sex is very much present by the fact that it emphatically does not happen. I have yet to see a version of it where the two main characters fling caution and clothing completely to the winds – that would make no sense – but these two tormented souls get pretty close.

During a beautifully rendered “deeds of kindness,” Didymus (Bejun Mehta) disrobes, item by item, and in Irene’s aria “defend her, heav’n,” that follows right after, the lines about preserving Theodora’s virtue seem to be voiced not by Irene, but by Didymus’s own conscience. In the end, he intends by “sweet rose and lily” to be satisfied with only a smile for his reward – and he gets one almost immediately, but not from Theodora.

You know how a “messenger” announces the gathering wrath of the heathens early on? Well, in this production, the messenger does that, but he also has a way of wandering around at other times, observing the action. It seems like a reference to the mythological role of angels as messengers. When Didymus decides to think about smiles, the messenger just happens to be cruising through and smiles at him, in a kindly way – Didymus is getting a smile from heaven, perhaps.

But anyway. This performance confirmed my sense that I like Didymus and Theodora’s Part II duet at least as much as “streams of pleasure” at the end of Part III. It’s a love duet about love that can’t go where both parties half wish it would, and the patterns of tension and release in the two vocal parts are both beautiful and evocative. As I said, Theodora’s ambivalence and very human desires are right there in the music – there and in the foregoing aria where she asks for death.

In general, there is plenty of worthwhile singing in this performance – though by about an hour or so into the recording I was hearing some weird distortion in the recorded sound whenever it got loud. This was definitely a recording issue rather than a performance one, and it might even be my speakers, but it kinda spoiled most of Part II for me, which is normally one of my favorite sections of the whole thing. Even so, I enjoyed Christine Schäfer’s intense “with darkness deep” – in general, her performance is well worth hearing, especially if you have better speakers than I do. Bernarda Fink as Irene was placed in a slightly unfair situation, in that everyone who has heard this oratorio before has probably heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in that role, in excerpts if not the whole thing – and that is a tough act to follow, even ten or fifteen years later.

Nearly everyone gets a chance to be ambivalent, including Septimius (Joseph Kaiser), who starts out with the uncomfortable and puzzled look of a man who 1) has a bad headache and 2) has never had a headache before. Septimius has gotten to the bottom of the problem, though, by “Though the honors that Flora and Venus receive,” the point of which is that the Roman gods do not take pleasure seeing innocent people persecuted, even though those people refuse to worship them. Quite enlightened, those Roman gods.

I still think Peter Sellars’s production of this is the best I’ve seen. This one is all right – Mehta and Schäfer are certainly worth the price of admission – but there is a compelling wholeness to Sellars’s concept that this Salzburg version doesn’t quite match.