Handel considered Theodora the greatest of his oratorios. Few today would disagree with him, though it was surprisingly unsuccessful at its Covent Garden premiere in 1750, and the Royal Opera’s new production effectively marks its overdue homecoming. Notoriety, however, began to cling to Katie Mitchell’s staging well before opening night, thanks to trigger warnings about “explicit violence” on the Royal Opera website, and the much reported employment of intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien to ensure the performers felt comfortable with the sex scenes. All this has to some extent been a bit of a distraction, as the production is for the most part a reined-in affair, and neither particularly explicit (either sexually or in its depiction of violence) nor quite as inflammatory as anticipated.
Mitchell’s stance is typically probing and interrogative. Distrusting Handel’s supposed depiction of his heroine as stoic or passive (with which not everyone would agree) Mitchell makes her a fundamentalist revolutionary rather than a martyr and relocates the oratorio to a modern-day alternative reality, setting it in an embassy that has been infiltrated by Christian resistance members bent on destroying the male-dominated pagan Roman system.
The interlocking rooms of Chloe Lamford’s set take us into the kitchen, where we find Julia Bullock’s Theodora and Joyce DiDonato’s Irene making bombs, then to a grand salon in which Gyula Orendt’s psychopathic Valens issues orders and holds official functions, and also into what turns out to be a state-run brothel, where Theodora is forced into prostitution. Mitchell makes more than most directors of the gender implications of the scenes in which Didymus (Jakub Józef Orliński) and Theodora exchange clothes, and presents Septimius (Ed Lyon) as a more duplicitous figure than the compassionate Enlightenment rationalist of Handel’s imagination. There’s a twist at the end that takes us far from the original narrative. The overriding problem, I think, is that fundamentalists are ultimately sympathetic only to other fundamentalists, and it was not always easy to feel involved.
One of the finest casts ever assembled for the work, however, means that musically this is breathtaking. Quietly passionate, Bullock sounds lovely in her arias and her voice blends beautifully with Orliński’s in their duets. He sings ravishingly throughout, as does DiDonato: As With Rosy Steps the Morn is a thing of rapt, introverted pianissimos, exquisitely done. Lyon is forthright, handsome in tone and presence, while Orendt is all hauteur and malign intensity. There’s immaculate choral singing, superbly focused and balanced, along with fervour, grace and elegance in Harry Bicket’s conducting. You may be in two minds about Mitchell’s staging, but it’s one of the most beautiful things you will ever hear.