Theodora | William Christie & Les Arts Florissants
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Theodora | William Christie & Les Arts Florissants

NEW YORK CITY
Alice Tully Hall
10/31/15

FOR THE LAST TWENTY YEARS OR SO, conductors, directors and audiences have been realizing that Theodora—with Messiah, Handel’s only Christian-themed oratorio—is one of his most extraordinarily powerful concert works. New York has had two terrific recent chances to experience this 1750 masterwork as part of touring early music ensembles. Harry Bicket’s English Concert brought it to Carnegie in February 2014 with starry cast led by Dorothea Röschmann and David Daniels. At Alice Tully Hall on Halloween, as part of the White Light Festival, William Christie returned with his terrific Arts Florissants forces to lead five very fine leading artists in a memorable, stirring evening. It’s a real pleasure to hear Christie in front of his own orchestra and chorus: it’s a totally different (and surer) proposition than his recent guest performances at the Met. The Tully performance also featured much finer vocalism than Christie’s 2000 Theodora at BAM, which fairly ordinary save for stunningly beautiful singing by Richard Croft as Septimius.

Septimius at Tully was Kresimir Spicer, his range challenged by a few of the role’s topmost notes but possessed of superb coloratura and a pliant, plaintive timbre that made his interventions very moving. The Croatian tenor fielded the best-weighted English recitatives among the three non-native speakers. “From virtue springs each gen'rous deed” showed uncommon musical and interpretive expressiveness. The two francophone artists both have well-established Baroque credentials. Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky (Didymus), as much of a cult figure in France as Christie himself, did some exquisite singing when Handel’s lines soared slowly upward. Some of his sustained phrases were breathtaking, and vocally and interpretively he was a convincing lover, if a less convincing warrior.  The voice, extraordinary though it be, is fairly monochrome and some bottom notes sounded detached; but he certainly gave much pleasure. “Streams of pleasure” proved transporting. 

Stéphanie d’Oustrac, who sang Irene, the action’s pious commentator, started her professional career with Christie. Roles like Carmen and Berlioz’s Béátrice have taken her timbre further from its former early-music purity; she makes a somewhat smoky sound, with gear changes and extra breaths sometimes evident. But she imbued Irene’s music with insight and authority. 

The remaining principals, both young Britons on the rise, made less complicated impressions—and entirely positive ones. Callum Thorpe (the persecuting Emperor Valens) adds to the world’s short list of first-rate Handelian basses, boasting rich resonance and unvexed agility. In Theodora’s lovely arias and duets, Katherine Watson showed the classic virtues of even, clear tone, effortless coloratura and crisp words. One looks forward to hearing her in much Handelian repertory. 

The outstanding chorus entered into the emotional ethos of the work. Praise is also due the continuo players (theorbo, cello and harpsichord) and principal flautist. Standing ovations from a sold-out house with a waiting list; shouldn’t that signal other Lincoln Center entities that there’s a dedicated audience for Handel in New York City?  —David Shengold

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