The wry observation – no joke given the seriousness of the material – that the Royal Opera’s new staging of Theodora failed to deliver the sex and violence promised may have worn thin by the time you read this. All to the good. Katie Mitchell’s take on Handel’s late oratorio, first performed in London in 1750, is far superior to the blizzard of warning signals that preceded it, and far less radical too. Most of the advance alerts were irrelevant for anyone with even mildly robust 21st-century sensibilities.
This tragedy of a virginal Christian woman persecuted by the Romans, set to an English libretto by Thomas Morell, contains some of the most affecting and inward-looking music Handel wrote. Therein lies the shock: that his economy of means could produce music of such grief. Mitchell’s updating honoured that solemnity, as did the star cast led by the soprano Julia Bullock as Theodora, the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as her friend Irene, and the countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as the Christian convert Didymus.
You can take or leave the directorial interventions, the hallmark slo-mo sequences, the gun-toting and bomb-making. So, too, can you accept the shift in narrative emphasis: Mitchell wants this religion to be active and political rather than, as she sees it, passive, though we could argue at length about whether an interior faith can ever truly be passive. None of her interpretation, thoughtfully conveyed on its own terms, obscures the work’s simple message – a cry for tolerance urged at the outset by Didymus: “vain is the attempt to force belief/ with the severest instrument of death”. Handel asks the same question with equal force in Messiah: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”. Humanity wins out in Theodora. Neither the misogyny Mitchell finds in the work, nor the rescue from it by a feminist interpretation and a reworked and unconvincing ending, can alter that central plea.
Conducted by Harry Bicket, whose familiarity with Theodora goes back to Peter Sellars’s Glyndebourne production of the 1990s, when Bicket played harpsichord continuo, the music took time to settle, with nervous scrambling between pit and stage at the start. Yet during the course of this four-hour evening, Handel’s genius shone with ever greater luminosity, supported by a staging of care, perception and mostly – a second encounter is needed to understand every aspect – coherence. Designed with stylish attention to detail by Chloe Lamford, with costumes by Sussie Juhlin-Wallén and lighting by James Farncombe, the setting is a modern embassy. The covert Christians work in a catering kitchen, in service to the Romans who hold champagne parties next door, both rooms visible at once in the sliding-boxes set.
Bullock’s Theodora, heartfelt and strong, is ardently sung by this versatile performer. Handel may not be her central musical territory, but she gave it her all, with nuance and vitality. The role of Irene, taken by DiDonato, has greater dramatic scope and matchless arias (including As with rosy steps the morn). DiDonato and Bicket together showed how Handel’s long da capo arias – in which the first section returns after a contrasting middle – move forwards not back, not a repetition but an emotional transfiguration. They did this via ornamentation and dynamics, subtle in execution, absolute in impact. DiDonato, whether pushing her Dinnerladies cleaning trolley or spooning out instant coffee as if for a homely prayer meeting, electrified, especially in Lord, to thee. (Asserting my non-passive self, I would happily thwack the person who shouted “Brava!”, fortissimo solo, each time DiDonato finished singing.)
The production’s dominant visual image, gallingly, will be that of the two near-naked pole dancers who spiral up and down in their red padded velvet boudoir like birds of paradise. They do this, nearly to distraction, in Theodora’s sorrowing aria, With darkness deep, underlining the disparity between the dancers’ pride in their work and the Christian virgin’s horror at her enforced prostitution. Yet they can coexist, and offer mutual solace. Crass humour is narrowly avoided when Didymus, now disguised in Theodora’s short, tight, sequined sex worker garb, takes over on the pole. Orliński, singing with limpid clarity in a striking house debut, is also a brave and game actor. This episode is merely the most titivating part of a rich visual whole that offers so much more.
Ed Lyon as the conflicted Septimius (triumphing in From virtue springs each gen’rous deed), Gyula Ordent as Valens and Thando Mjandana as Marcus completed the lineup. The orchestra sounded more meaty than we are now used to in baroque repertoire, but still lithe and responsive. Five-star praise to the ROH chorus, and to the basso continuo players, the linchpin of this music, who give colour and character: harpsichordists Andrew Griffiths and Mark Packwood, cellist Chris Vanderspar and, especially, theorbo player Eligio Luis Quinteiro, sinewy and sensuous throughout.
Handel’s contemporary Bach may never have written any operas, but his conservative employers in Leipzig, on his appointment as cantor, warned him against being too operatic. One of his cantatas from that period, Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?, BWV 81 (Jesus sleeps, what should my hope be?) uses expressive colouring, whether in the drifts of woodwind that suggest slumber in the opening alto aria, or in the bursting storm music that follows. Dramatic? Without question. This was the work featured in the latest Bach, the Universe and Everything by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, an ongoing Sunday series performed on the same day at Kings Place, London and Oxford Mathematical Institute.
Directing from the organ, Steven Devine led eight singers and nine instrumentalists in a taut programme of short works with the cantata as centrepiece. Bethany Horak-Hallett, a member of the OAE’s Rising Stars of the Enlightenment scheme, sang the opening aria with persuasive freshness and assurance. A feature of these events is the choice of a science-connected speaker to give a “sermon”. Tim Harford, economist, journalist and wonderful presenter of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less, spoke fluently about how random obstacles can inspire us to be more creative. His central example was Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert, when a bad back and a bad piano nearly forced the jazz master to cancel, but resulted in a bestselling album of improvised brilliance. We should all bear that in mind as we embrace our current chaoses – and yes, let’s put that in the plural.
Star ratings (out of five)
OAE: Bach, the Universe and Everything ★★★★
Theodora is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 16 February