Handel: Theodora

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: DG Archiv
WORKS: Theodora
PERFORMER: Susan Gritton (soprano), Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Paul Agnew, Angus Smith (tenor), Neal Davies (bass); Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
CATALOGUE NO: 469 061-2
Handel’s penultimate oratorio, Theodora, was first given at Covent Garden in March 1750. Though it was performed three times that year, and again, revised, in 1755, it wasn’t a great success. Theodora herself was a Christian martyr during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Her story, of course, is a tragic one, though, like a Bach cantata, the Christian message ultimately is one of triumph and redemption. The work was a favourite of Handel’s, so its failure with the public must have been especially disappointing; but lacking a conventionally happy ending it went against the taste of the time, and librettist Thomas Morell’s story of Christian martyrdom was never likely, perhaps, to make wide appeal.

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This new version joins three existing recordings – from Johannes Somary (Vanguard), Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec) and Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi) – with a fifth due from William Christie. McCreesh’s is a splendid addition to the catalogue, with a team of soloists whose excellence is more evenly distributed than any of its rivals. Susan Gritton, in the title role, communicates Theodora’s touchingly human qualities with compassion, but choosing between her performance and that of Lorraine Hunt (McGegan) will always be a matter of very personal taste. Susan Bickley has the edge over Jennifer Lane (McGegan) as the Christian, Irene, but her tenderly alluring aria ‘As with rosy steps the Morn’ seems a shade too slow. Maureen Lehane (Somary) gives a performance of this piece to die for. Generally speaking McCreesh’s direction of voices and instruments is more sharply defined than that of his rivals and, all things considered it is, for the time being, my first choice. Nicholas Anderson