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Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

THEODORA WAS WRITTEN IN THE LAST PERIOD of Handel's career, when he had abandoned opera in favor of oratorio. It was one of the composer's favorite works, and shows him at the height of his creative powers. Theodora was not popular at its 1750 premiere; possibly the story of Theodora's sacrificial martyrdom proved disturbing then, but now the work and its appeal for religious tolerance and humanity has never been more relevant. The new production of the work by Stephen Langridge at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, with William Christie conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Arts Florissants, opened to unanimous acclaim on the first night, October 10.

Theodora is condemned to prostitution for not celebrating the birthday of Diocletian by making a sacrifice to Jove, only to escape by exchanging clothes with her lover, Didymus. She chooses to die by his side in a final act of martyrdom, capping a plot of adventurous proportions. Langridge updated the work to a contemporary setting, in which fascist domination and book-burning fundamentalism were set against stoic faith. The production was free of modern gimmicks and any limiting sense of place or time: Alison Chitty's elegant sliding panels were atmospherically lit by Fabrice Kebour, and the devotional nature of the work was rendered with serene discretion. Langridge did not impose extraneous movement were none was suggested. The essential difference between an opera seria and Handel's oratorios lies in the use of the chorus, which acts here as the dramatic motor of the evening. 

Langridge's direction of the Arts Florissants chorus was outstanding. This was not a static Greek chorus but individuals bearing witness—festively drawn Romans or imploring candle-bearing Christians clutching pictures of their martyred family members. All stage directors who confine choruses to the orchestra pit or provide plodding serried ranks should take note.

As the stricken heroine, soprano Katherine Watson sang with sweet, supple tone, seconded by the devoted Irene of mezzo Stéphanie d'Oustrac, who paced herself cautiously on opening night. Initially lacking depth of tone, d'Oustrac grew in vocal stature as the evening progressed. Philippe Jaroussky was out of his vocal comfort zone as Didymus, singing in English in a role written by Handel for the celebrated castrato Gaetano Guadagni. It lay too low for his bright countertenor, but despite looking ill at ease in his military uniform, he nonetheless produced some ethereally floated high phrases. 

Stylish singing came from Kresimir Spicer as his well-meaning soldier friend, Septimius; the Croatian tenor offered spectacular coloratura and honeyed compassionate soft singing, but gruffer moments at full stretch. The unyielding Roman governor Valens of dynamic bass Callum Thorpe deserves special praise for his clear, communicative English. If any criticism could be made of cast and chorus it is was the mushy English consonants, which made titles essential.

William Christie's direction has deepened since the groundbreaking production of the work by Peter Sellars in Glyndebourne nearly twenty years ago. Les Arts Florissants were at the top of their form, with transparent orchestral textures in a ritualistic pacing of the work: those in the audience who dared applaud arias received black looks from the conductor. This was delicate, soft-edged Handel, far removed from the muscular martial approach of past generations. The wondrous score shone with freshly minted beauty.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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