Handel Theodora

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: George Frederic Handel
LABELS: Glyndebourne
ALBUM TITLE: Handel Theodora
WORKS: Theodora
PERFORMER: Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezo-soprano0, David Daniels (countertenor), Richard Croft (tenor), Michael Hart-Davis (tenor), Frode Olsen (bass); Glyndebourne Chorus; OAE/William Christie


Live audio recordings of fully-staged productions offer particular challenges and rewards. If you were lucky enough to have been there, your memory will supply the imagery to accompany the sound of heavy footfall, a squeal or a sob. If you were not, you can invent your own – though in the case of Peter Sellars’s 1996 staging of Handel’s oratorio, Theodora, you may be wise to invest in the DVD. For purity of sound, a studio recording is the better option. Yet even with the bumps and scrapes of unseen stage business, and without the Guantanamo jumpsuits and lethal injection gurneys of Sellars’s landmark production, something very special is audible here: though slow to ignite in all but Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s transcendent Irene, there is a sense of collective devotion as electric as any Bach Passion.

Hunt Lieberson’s characterisation of the zealous Irene remains unrivalled on disc. Here, she also closes the stylistic gaps between David Daniels’s cool, elegant Didymus, Richard Croft’s uninhibitedly sleazy Septimus and Dawn Upshaw’s heart-on-sleeve Theodora. American-accent to the fore, Upshaw tears up the Baroque style manual. It’s gushy, sometimes croony, a hair’s breadth from Broadway, but it is deeply felt and deeply moving. Glyndebourne’s young chorus make polytheism sound a lot more fun than Christianity. Under William Christie, whose studio recording with Les Arts Florissants is more delicate, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment deliver a shapely performance – gaudy in the Roman festival, pale as moonlight in the solitary terror of Theodora’s captivity.


Anna Picard