This mostly wonderful performance of Handel’s Theodora opened the 2009 Salzburg Festival in honor of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. Written at the beginning of the last decade of the composer’s life, it was a work that he held in very high regard even though he knew its subject matter would not excite.

Only performed three times before his death, it seems a singularly excellent choice to mark his passing since its music and libretto are of a most solemn nature. Its relative neglect would appear to be unjust and hopefully this DVD will bring its virtues to a wider audience.  

The story is set in Antioch in the 3rd century A.D. and concerns the barbarous ruler, Valens, and his wish that all his subjects worship his god Jupiter. This would appear to involve quite a bit of Bacchanalian frolicking and a general lack of any kind of moral decorum. The chaste Theodora is a Christian noblewoman who has no intention of compromising herself regardless of the quality of the grape. So, we have a pig and a prig.

Add to this a young Roman officer, Didymus, whose love for Theodora is so great that he converts to Christianity in order to spare her life and eventually joins her in martyrdom. The only two other characters are Septimius, another Roman soldier, and Irene, a simple Christian woman and friend to our heroine. They both act as sounding boards to the main characters and comment on the action to very telling effect, at times.

So, it is a very simple story and the characters are simply presented as they are. No sort of background or development is offered or required. The events are set in motion at the rise of the curtain and with only one diversion it finishes after 3 acts, each lasting just an hour. This is a more mature Handel, missing the flash and glamour of Alcina or Giulio Cesare. Da capo repeats are lightly decorated but, the somber tone of much of the music really doesn’t lend itself to fireworks and display. We are left with a much leaner, and certainly more dramatic, experience.

The production is directed by Christof Loy, perhaps most notorious as the fellow whose insistence on Ariadne’s little black dress in his production at Covent Garden resulted in Deborah Voigt‘s dismissal and her mad dash to the gastric bypass clinic. I shall not hold it against him. His production is spare to the extreme and in the liner notes he refers to wanting it to appear like an art installation. In this he succeeds. For the mostly barren stage is only backed by an enormous construct of organ pipes partially swathed in muslin for artistic effect and a large cluster of slightly moderne, wooden chairs. It’s almost as if we are at a rehearsal space for a dry run of a production where the director has asked his cast to “get a feel” for the play.

It slowly becomes apparent that what we are watching is a very carefully crafted staging and that Mr. Loy has put a great deal of thought into how best to present this very austere work to its best and most emotionally moving effect. A single chair on its side represents a prison cell in act two and the finale is particularly striking in it’s simple execution, no pun intended. The soloists are dressed in evening clothes with the chorus in business attire. All black, save our heroine who in the first act is in a simple white dress. After being consigned to life as a prostitute in the second act she appears in red; this is the dress she gives to Didymus to impersonate her while she make her escape while wearing his tuxedo for the remainder of the action.

This last half of the second act is the musical glory of the performance and this work. First the duet of Theodora and Didymus as he changes places, and clothes, with her to free her from prison, “To thee, thou glorious son of worth,” and then the closing chorus, “He saw the lovely youth” which Handel himself thought was “far beyond’ his own “Hallelujah.”

The star of this performance is the Bach Choir of Salzburg. I was constantly astonished at their clarity of word and intonation from this 40-member group in what can only be a foreign language to most of them. The fact that they manage to blend so well while scattered, or even worse, lined up in single file across the vast stage of the Festspeilhaus is a testament to their professionalism. Despite my never having been a big fan of Handel, let alone his choral writing, by the second act I was actually anticipating the choruses next contribution and enjoying it tremendously.

It’s nice to see Ryland Davies as the Messenger, even if his part is small, he adds a bit of gravitas to the proceedings. Joseph Kaiser sings the tenor role of Septimius bravely. His earnest “approxamatura” in his second aria, “Dread the fruits of Christian folly” doesn’t fool the Salzburg audience and he is rewarded with silence at its conclusion. His solid singing does gain in strength as the opera progresses and he makes a very good impression by evenings’ end—sixteenth notes be damned, or in this case, “damn’d.”

Bernarda Fink as Irene has some magnificent contributions here, ‘”Defend her, Heav’n” being the highlight. Her slightly plummy mezzo is a perfect weight for Handel and her English does not betray her Argentinean heritage. Bass Johannes Martin Kranzle is the ruler Valens and he is a fine actor and instantly recognizable as a boorish buffoon who’s his own self absorption makes him a danger to his people. His voice is fluid and his passagework very clean. In the finale of act three his exit, having realized that his lack of tolerance has brought about the death of two people far better than he, is a study in immaturity.

I have never been charmed by countertenors and would prefer a mezzo in any of these old castrato parts. Bejun Mehta, however, goes from strength to strength is this performance. In “Kind heav’n, if virtue be thy care,” the start of his da capo repeat is stunning and latter in the third act when he dips into his lowest register during variants it’s a knockout. He’s also brave enough to trill when it’s required, though the success of the trill depends upon the area of his voice hes in at the time. (Lower seems better.)  Luckily, the 2009 Salzburg audience had no reason to be distracted by his striking physical and vocal resemblance to Chris Colfer who plays Babygay Kurt on Glee. On the home screen it’s a little smirk-inspiring. He does manage to carry off being garbed as a woman in the last act (that little red dress) which is to his credit.

Christine Schäfer has grown enormously as an artist since I saw a video of her Covent Garden Gilda in 2002 and her singing, although slightly accented at times, is excellent. Her tone has remained clean and gained body and volume. Theodora is the kind of role that benefits from a career singing Mozart and lied . She rings out over the orchestra to real dramatic effect in the last act and also sounds, uncannily at times, like Julia Varady. From all the ruddy complexions on display I don’t think anyone in this production was allowed make-up beyond a little mascara and some lipstick and at the last when she’s dressed as a man it works even further to her advantage as an actress.

The Baroque Orchestra of Freiburg offer a supple rendering of the score under Ivor Bolton. Placed on the highest possible level of the orchestra platform to ensure everyone stays together the neck of the double bass actually pops out over the lip of the stage. It allows Bolton to keep everyone together in the vast spaces of the Festspeilhaus and you can truly feel him supporting the singers, most especially in their da capo sections. They used exactly the same number of players that the score indicates so, no doubling or filling out for the larger theater and you can actually sense the audience listening intently.

Handel’s Organ Concerto in G-minor is inserted into the beginning of Act three to provide Theodora a pantomime to show her enjoying her new man-garb in society. First aping the boorish behavior of Valens at the opera’s start it then turns quickly menacing and finally leads to her capture. An inspired idea and another excellent example of the power and economy of this staging.

The blurb on the packaging calls the video director, Hannes Rossacher, “world-renowned and though I certainly can’t dispute that characterization, I can’t see anything individual about his contribution either. The DVD video picture was mastered almost too sharp and there was some phasing from the vertical lines of the organ pipes at the back of the stage that required adjusting down a bit. Sound was superb. This is also released in Blu-Ray and although I’m a big fan of the format I can’t imagine it bettering any of the experience in this case.

For Handel fans this is an excellent addition to your library. For anyone interested in experiencing Handel at his mature genius it holds many rewards.