Theodora review – a searing performance of Handel’s own favourite oratorio

·2-min read

Handel’s Theodora is one of classical music’s reminders that audience tastes change – sometimes radically. The oratorio was considered a failure at its Covent Garden premiere in 1750 and was pulled after only three performances. Even the theatrical austerity of Lent had failed to persuade opera-goers that a work about Christian martyrdom was a good night out. These days, though, there are recordings galore and the oratorio Handel apparently considered his best (move over, Messiah!) has enjoyed high-profile stagings by Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne, Christof Loy at Salzburg and, most recently, Katie Mitchell at the Royal Opera House.

This Barbican outing from period-performance powerhouse Arcangelo and their artistic director Jonathan Cohen was emphatically unstaged – albeit with “on-” and “off-stage” seating for the soloists. In fact it’s remarkable that the performance communicated so searingly when the shattering final seconds of various numbers involved another singer creeping on to the middle of the stage for the next scene, and when there were always too many chairs but never enough music stands. Like it or not, even concert performances have a visual element.

Yet searing it was, despite those distractions. From the overture’s opening bars, Arcangelo’s sound was alternately big-boned and lithe, the harsh ring of violins’ open E strings periodically adding delicious bite. Elsewhere, the ensemble provided a frozen ground for some of Handel’s most poignant arias. From his seat at the harpsichord – an additional pair of hands in Arcangelo’s earth-quaking continuo section – Cohen was endlessly energetic, maintaining an overall sense of momentum through even the gentlest of da capo repeats and drawing a deluxe sonic blend (and a masterclass in diction) from the small chorus.

The soloists were largely at the expensive-mineral-water end of the vocal spectrum: pure, subtle and extremely tasteful. Anna Stéphany’s Irene was mellow and light, while Stuart Jackson (Septimius) made Handel’s lines sound as inevitable as breathing, his phrasing exquisite. Adam Plachetka’s heavier, deep-pile bass-baritone provided effective contrast as Valens and Tim Mead’s coppery Didymus was dramatically convincing. Louise Alder’s Theodora was by turns poised, powerful, entirely inward. At times she seemed barely to sing at all – and the audience barely breathed.