Recordings > Editor's Choice

HANDEL: Theodora

spacer Upshaw, Hunt; Daniels, Croft, Olsen; Glynde­bourne Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, W. Christie. Text. GFOCD 014-96 (3) 

Dramatic Intensity

Glyndebourne's CD release of its 1996 Peter Sellars–William Christie Theodora is one of the most satisfying of all Handel recordings.

TheodoraCD

A Peter Sellars production without the visual element? It might in prospect seem like a martini without gin. In actuality this compact disc release of the famous Sellars production of Handel's Theodora from the 1996 Glyndebourne Festival turns out to be one of the most satisfying of all Handel recordings. Sellars has always been keenly attentive to the musical edition used in his shows. Here William Christie conducts a remarkably full version of the score. Indeed it is fuller than Handel himself would have envisioned at one point, with the character Valens singing both an air and the recitative that was written to replace it. Dawn Upshaw's Theodora is given an extra aria, "Lost in anguish," shortly before the denouement. There are a few tiny trims of text, surely not done for reasons of time (well over three hours of music is performed) but to focus the plot on the themes Sellars deems most important. At a crucial dramatic juncture in Act III, Sellars even has Theodora repeat a line of recitative. Everybody in the performance — down to the transverse flute player who has only single, mournful notes to play at the start of the prison scene  — understands how his or her part relates to the whole. 

This intense involvement with the dramatic power of Handel's music extends to the members of Christopher Moulds's Glyndebourne Chorus, who are adept at portraying both fervent, dedicated Christians and crass Romans, and who unfailingly keep up with Christie's frantic tempo in "For ever thus stands fix'd" . Tenor Richard Croft's Septimius, offering the full measure of Handelian brilliance in "Dread the fruits of Christian folly" , is a pillar of the performance. Audiences have seldom heard from a Handelian tenor anything as sheerly beautiful as the opening of the tone at the line "bless the world" . David Daniels, like Upshaw, is full of the Sellars fire, and his vocal virtuosity is always in the service of dramatic expression. Listeners may become so engaged by certain phrases in his "Kind Heaven, if virtue be thy care"  — the weighting of words, the evenness of tone, the variety of phrasing — that they won't notice the way Daniels has done all these things in one breath. Upshaw's most communicative performances, such as her roles in the first productions of El Niño and L'Amour de Loin, often come in collaboration with Sellars. Here, she seems to have given everything she has inside her to "With darkness deep," but she then pulls out even more for "O that I on wings could rise"

The CD packaging and billing on this release have been re-jiggered to feature Lorraine Hunt (as she was known in 1996, before her marriage to Peter Lieberson) in the supporting role of Irene. This is understandable. The way Hunt weighs and colors each of the four vowels in a word such as "prosperity"  qualifies as great singing from any era, and her rendition of "As with rosy steps the morn" remains one of the finest musical performances on offer to the public. The CD booklet contains a substantial introduction to Theodora by Stanley Sadie, in which he explains why the work (a late piece, and not much of a success in its day) would never have been staged. There is also a synopsis in which Sellars tells the story in his own inimitable way. These Sellars manifestos, souvenirs that used to be handed out separately from the program books at the live performances, are priceless. The one for the 1985 Sellars Giulio Cesare at the Pepsico Summerfare festival consisted of seven single-spaced typewritten mimeographed pages. The fifth paragraph began "I myself detest updating as a rule." It still raises a smile today, but the smile is now one of gratitude for services rendered to music. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3