Cher Public

Theodora goes wild

Joined by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, The English Concert concluded the US leg of its current tour at Carnegie Hall Sunday with a complete performance of the darkly moving Theodora, Handel’s penultimate oratorio. The orchestra’s usual immaculate music-making and the 24-member chorus’s radiantly hall-filling singing struggled to mitigate the disappointing unevenness of several of the soloists.  

Composed in 1750, Theodora proved a resolute failure probably attributable to its somber depiction of the martyrdom of the Christian virgin and her would-be savior Didymus, a Roman recently converted by Theodora’s fervor—and beauty. Despite its rejection by the public, it remained a favorite of the composer’s, particularly the three-section chorus “He saw the lovely youth” which closes the second act and which Handel named the favorite of his own choruses.

The work remained among Handel’s least often performed oratorios until the devastating 1996 Glyndebourne Festival staging directed by Peter Sellars and conducted by William Christie which happily remains available on both CD and DVD. Since then, it’s been much more frequently revived: Sunday’s performance conducted by the orchestra’s music director Harry Bicket was the fourth Theodora I’ve attended since 2000.

Bicket’s band displayed the same virtues that shone in last year’s Radamisto at Carnegie Hall: impeccable ensemble and intonation, virtuosic playing (this year, particularly by the concertmistress Nadja Zwiener and the two natural horn players, Ursula Paludan Monberg and Martin Lawrence) and admirable stamina throughout the four long hours.  But as with Bicket performances in the past, it can become all too polished—the wrenching emotions of this fable of religious fanaticism and persecution occasionally failed to register. The vibrant chorus (its director Julian Wachner played the organ) began too politely but soon rose to sneering heights in “Venus, laughing from the skies” sung as the virgin is condemned to serve as a prostitute.

For over a decade the Welsh bass-baritone Neal Davies has been an important go-to singer for Handel oratorios, having recorded both Saul and Valens, Theodora’s blood-thirsty Roman President of Antioch, with Paul McCreesh on Archiv. He remains a vigorous exemplar of these important bass roles. Although the voice might no longer move as nimbly as it used to, his frightening Valens conveyed his brutal threat, particularly in “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire” where he ponders the tortures he’s planned for the recalcitrant Christians.

A late replacement for English tenor Andrew Kennedy, Kurt Streit throughout showed a remarkable command of his instrument, particularly impressive since in recent years his repertoire has expanded to Loge, Énée, Florestan and Don José. The former Mozart specialist retains a steady bright tenor which dealt eloquently with Septimius’s challenging arias, except for “Dread the fruits of Christian folly” where the fiendish coloratura stretched Streit to the limit.

In theory, Sarah Connolly would have seemed ideal casting as Irene, Theodora’s confidante and leader of the Christian sect. However, her five arias failed to make their expected impact—Connolly’s nice singing was bland and small-scaled, consistently lacking the intensity needed to bring this moving character to life. It’s not her fault that the Sellars production cast the inimitable Lorraine Hunt (Leiberson) as Irene and her performance (as well as her later recording conducted by Bicket) left an indelible mark on the role. However, I heard Anne-Sofie von Otter sing Irene in Paris in 2006, and she too infused Irene’s transcendent music with touching strength.

Returning for the first time to the role of Didymus that eighteen years earlier had propelled him to countertenor stardom, David Daniels had the unenviable task of competing with his younger self readily available in documents of that Glyndebourne production. His performance remains his greatest with his voice at its absolute peak of beauty combined with an unquestioned dramatic commitment that is intensely moving; it stands as an essential testimony for anyone questioning the “need” for countertenors.

Unfortunately, Daniels has not been singing particularly well for the better part of the past decade; the voice has broken into unmatched parts and his previously fluent florid singing has become labored. Perhaps to make up for the vocal difficulties, Daniels threw himself into the drama on Sunday, but it frequently veered toward the overwrought. Most of the afternoon I kept thinking of other countertenors who might have made a better Didymus, including Iestyn Davies whom I heard sing a ravishing (if bland) Roman officer last year in Montréal.

Unfortunately “Thy Tuneful Voice,” Davies’s CD due out this month of arias from Handel oratorios, includes nothing from Theodora, but his earlier recital dedicated to the castrato Guadagni (who created Didymus) does contain “The raptur’d soul.”

Wearing red for martyrdom, German soprano Dorothea Röschmann made a frustrating, puzzling heroine. Much of her early career concentrated on early 18th century music, particularly Bach and Handel. Eventually the voice warmed and developed an interestingly smoky quality as she moved into lots and lots of Mozart and then into heavier forays into Wagner (Eva, then Elsa in Stefan Herheim’s Lohengrin, both at the Berlin Staatsoper, her home theater) which seem to have precipitated a vocal crisis. The voice has indeed gotten bigger but it remains under imperfect control—dynamics are particularly problematic as all afternoon Röschmann struggled to sing anything at less than forte with high notes nearly always louder than they should have been. Like Daniels’s, the voice has broken into jarring parts: a muddy lower register, a middle with a prominent vibrato and a still gleaming but severely shortened top.

Her overly “operatic” Theodora was committed and intense, but the singing was marred by disturbing veristic touches which clashed with the purity of the character. Her imperfect English diction occasionally interfered with her phrasing leading to awkwardly unidiomatic moments. Recalling Karina Gauvin’s golden Theodora last year only reinforced my frustration with Röschmann whose stylistic solecisms reminded me of the last time I heard her, an uneven all-Handel concert at Carnegie Hall with Daniels and Juilliard 415 in 2011. An acquaintance who performs with leading period-instrument groups fled that concert at intermission frustrated by her unstylish singing.

All in all, the performance proved greater than the sum of its parts based on the stomping, shouting ovation it received. The English Concert returns to Europe this week for three further performances of Theodora where the wonderful Handel soprano Rosemary Joshua and countertenor Tim Mead replace Röschmann and Daniels—substitutions I suspect I’d prefer. The orchestra returns to Carnegie in October for the third in the series: Handel’s magic opera Alcina starring Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote amid an otherwise puzzling cast—Orlando follows in a succeeding season.

While I appreciate Carnegie Hall’s commitment to Handel operas/oratorios, is The English Concert the only ensemble New York should hear perform these great works? Mightn’t we instead relish a chance to hear Akademie fúr Alte Musik or Les Musiciens du Louvre or Europa Galante or Armonia Atenea or Collegium 1704 or Les Violons du Roy do one sometime?

For those wanting to hear another Handel oratorio, the American Classical Orchestra goes baroque next month when it invites Nicholas McGegan to conduct Samson at Alice Tully Hall on March 4 with tenor Thomas Cooley in the title role. It promises to be illuminating to have the title role sung by a tenor who specializes in the repertoire, especially as previous New York Samsons have included Richard Tucker and Jon Vickers!

Sunday’s performance of Theodora was recorded by WQXR who will broadcast it at 7:00 PM on March 16; it will also appear on other radio stations throughout the country via American Public Media.

Photo: Jim Rakete