Last Updated on February 1, 2022
Handel Transformed – a new production of Theodora at the Royal Opera House
There’s been a real buzz around the Royal Opera House about the opening night of Theodora, a co-production with the Teatro Real, Madrid. Handel’s three-act oratorio, with a libretto in English by the composer’s friend and colleague Thomas Morell, hasn’t been performed at Covent Garden since its premiere in March 1750. It didn’t find favour with audiences at the time but that might have been due to the earthquake that hit London a week before. Handel himself wryly noted that “The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one.” However, press night at the Garden was full to the rafters and there were many women and at least one Jew. Me!
Despite its initial lack of success, Theodora has remained a critical favourite and there have been recent fully staged versions including the landmark 1996 Glyndebourne production. The story of Theodora centres around the eponymous heroine who lived in Antioch which now lies in modern Turkey. The opera is set in 4AD and Antioch was part of the Roman Empire at that time. Theodora, a young noblewoman, and her friends are Christians and are arrested for ignoring an order to make a sacrifice to Venus, the Roman goddess of love, to celebrate the birthday of the Emperor Diocletian. The Roman soldier and Christian convert Didymus attempts to save Theodora who is sentenced to being raped in a brothel. He swaps places with her but in the end after appeals for clemency they are both sentenced to death.
Director Katie Mitchell has reframed this rather pious story as a radical Christian feminist resistance tale set in an ‘alternative modern-day reality’. In a sign of the times there has even been an intimacy co-ordinator on board to help the singers navigate their way through the more sexual scenes. In a move away from the original Handel where the Romans and Christians are presented separately, Mitchell has managed to bring the two groups together with the former working alongside their enemies at the Roman Embassy. This presents all sorts of dramatic possibilities which the production exploits with verve and a series of nods to pop culture.
There are slo-mo pole-dancing prostitutes courtesy of movement director Sarita Piotrowski, the embassy kitchen where much of the action is set looks like the Masterchef set, the Embassy hardmens’ outfits and a Mexican standoff are straight out of Pulp Fiction and there’s a scene in a commercial freezer that could just be a homage to Coronation St.!
Theodora is played by acclaimed soprano Julia Bullock as a religious fundamentalist resisting the Roman occupation. The uncovering of her plan to destroy the Roman embassy leads to fatal consequences. There is an intensity and piety about Bullock’s reading of the role and her acting was first-rate, but for a singer with a big voice, it felt too restrained vocally with a few tuning issues in the opening act. Whilst any authentic performance of Handel would never call for the dramatic heft of a Verdi heroine, Bullock’s voice was sometimes subsumed into the ensemble and seemed to lack confidence in the technically stylised Baroque vocal approach. Casting Julia Bullock, a noted social activist, in a role that highlighted oppression both of women and minority groups, was entirely fitting though.
American star mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is Theodora’s friend and co-plotter Irene. She too seemed under par in the opening few scenes, but by Act 2’s ‘Defend Her Heav’n, Let Angels Spread’ DiDonato’s rich dramatic mezzo voice had opened up beautifully bringing a vocal warmth and maturity to the stage.
Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orlinski is hugely impressive technically as the naive Didymus, Theodora’s lover and would-be protector. His counter-tenor was ravishing from his opening aria ‘The Raptur’d Soul Defies the Sword’ onwards and he acted with sensitivity. And British tenor Ed Lyon did an excellent job playing the tricky role of Septimus, torn between his friendship with Didymus and his duty and fealty to Valens.
The role of Valens, the evil Roman governor of Antioch is performed with relish by Hungarian-Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt, particularly in his showcase aria ‘Racks, Gibbets, Sword and Fire.’
Set designer Chloe Lamford has framed the drama is in a series of boxes that cross the stage. This provided a split-screen effect and kept the action fluid as well as linking the two hostile worlds. There’s also a lot of stage business going on which is probably a good thing as Baroque oratorios are very static with many lengthy arias and the action brings them to life. However, some of the detail got lost for those of us not sitting near the front; for instance, a bomb-making scene in the kitchen could just have easily been a pastry-making demonstration as the careful application of Semtex.
Conductor Harry Bicket struggled to hold back the singers and orchestra during the Overture and the first chorus ‘And draw a blessing down’. There was some ragged ensemble work and rushing semiquaver passages, but he soon got things under control allowing the composer’s restrained but powerful emotional language to come through.
Theodora was Handel’s favourite oratorio and it provides a fabulous showcase for the Royal Opera Chorus especially in the swelling ensemble writing of ‘He Saw the Lovely Youth’, Handel’s own favourite chorus surpassing even the better-known Hallelujah chorus in his estimation. There is a lot going on in this production musically, thematically and dramatically; but despite the caveats most of which may well be new production teething issues it’s well worth seeking out. It’s such a delight to hear Handel’s extraordinary composition back on its original stage with such an intelligent and thought-provoking production and a stand-out cast.
Royal Opera House,
London, WC2E 9DD
31 January–16 February 2022 The performance will last approximately 3 hours 55 minutes, with two intervals.
For more about what else is on, check out our preview of the Royal Opera House 2022 season