PERFORMER: Sophie Daneman (soprano), Juliette Galstian (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Taylor (countertenor), Richard Croft (tenor), Nathan Berg (baritone); Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
CATALOGUE NO: 0927-43181-2
Though Theodora’s librettist, the Revd Thomas Morell, had a vested interest in declaring the oratorio Handel’s favourite among all his works, his claim somehow rings true. The story of Christian martyrdom in Roman-occupied Antioch inspired music of unique poignancy and contemplative ecstasy, permeated with the elderly composer’s awareness of the beauty and transience of life.
William Christie’s new set, beautifully recorded and balanced, faces fierce competition from the DG Archiv account directed by Paul McCreesh (reviewed October 2000). Sophie Daneman has a lighter, gentler timbre than Susan Gritton for McCreesh; and while she doesn’t attain Gritton’s tragic anguish in the de profundis aria ‘With darkness deep’, she sings with a touching tenderness and elegiac sweetness. As Theodora’s fellow-martyr Didymus, Daniel Taylor is at least a match for McCreesh’s Robin Blaze: with his full, sensuous tone and fiery coloratura he easily avoids the role’s trap of mooning passivity. Nathan Berg brings an arrogant swagger to the Roman governor Valens, while Richard Croft is both elegant and virile as his sympathetic officer Septimius. The one relative disappointment among the soloists is Juliette Galstian as Irene: her voice, with its ‘straight’, near-vibratoless tone, is pleasant enough, but she tends to sing notes rather than phrases, and makes far less of her sublime arias than Susan Bickley on the McCreesh recording.
Whether as Christians or hedonistic Romans, the chorus is just as responsive and characterful as its rivals. And as at Glyndebourne, Christie’s direction, on the whole more measured than McCreesh’s, emphasises the oratorio’s essentially sombre, tragic tinta. The Christian choruses are that much more introspective than on the rival set, with Christie justifying some dangerously slow tempi and lingering cadences by the sheer intensity of his direction. Occasionally he slightly ‘frenchifies’ the music, as in the controversial use of notes inégales in several of Irene’s arias. Confined to a single Theodora I would still choose McCreesh, above all for Gritton and Bickley. But Christie’s broader, more reflective conception, culminating in a gravely mesmeric final chorus, is no less moving. Certainly one or the other version should be in the collection of anyone who cares about Handel. Richard Wigmore