Arias, Duets, and Choruses from Handel's Theodora
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 16, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
Theodora, a music drama by George Frederick Handel
libretto by Thomas Morell
directed by Timothy Nelson, assisted by Peter Burroughs
lighting designed by Bill Miller
conducted by Carsten Schmidt
Molly Quinn as Theodora
Daniel Moody as Didymus
Gene Stenger as Septimus
Sara Couden as Irene
Jonathan Woody as Valens
Chorus: Megan Chartrand, Molly Netter, Sarah Yanovitch, Angela Young Smucker, Clare McNamara,
Padraic Costello, John Noh, Zachary Wadsworth Paul Max Tipton, Peter Walker
SMF Baroque Players: flute: Immanuel Davis, Mary Boodell oboe: Alek Fester, Margaret Owens
bassoon: Keith Collins horn: Todd Williams, Ian Zook trumpet: Kris Kwapis, Bruno Lourensetto timpani: I-Jen Fang
violin: Martin Davids (CM), Antti Tikkanen, Nicholas DiEugenio, Ingrid Matthews, Gesa Kordes, Minna Pensola, Natalie Kress
viola: Jason Fisher, Kyle Miller cello: James Wilson, Anna Steinhoff violone: Erik Higgins
theorbo: Adam Cockerham harpsichord: Mark Shuldiner
video by Stewart Searle
About the Music
Theodora does not fit the mold of Handel’s seventeen other English oratorios. Whereas works like Saul or Jephtha are based on the Christian Bible, the story of Theodora and Didymus derives from non-biblical sources. This is not to suggest that Theodora lacks spirituality or religiosity—far from it, in fact. Handel’s librettist, Reverend Thomas Morell, drew on the writings of Saint Ambrose, a 4th-century French cleric and one of the four original “Doctors of the Church.” Additionally, Morell looked to various acta of the saints for details about these lead characters. He also drew inspiration from a work by the great French tragedian Corneille, whose Théodore appeared in 1646. Corneille’s play and Handel’s oratorio share more than plot: both were failures at the start, as we will discuss later.
Morell’s most important source, however, was a novella by the noted scientist Robert Boyle, a founder of modern chemistry. In his day Boyle was also a highly regarded theologian. Building upon Boyle’s The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus (1687), Morell contributed greater interest toward what were previously marginal characters, primarily Irene and Septimius. For example, Irene becomes much more than Theodora’s friend and confidante. In the libretto she emerges as a centering force for the Syrian Christian community of which Theodora and Didymus are members. On multiple occasions, Irene bridges Christian and Roman worlds, intoning blessings over Theodora and prefacing devotional choruses that symbolize the power of faith in the face of persecution (for example, Act 3, Sc. 1: “Lord, to Thee Each Night and Day”). And because the oratorio ends tragically with the deaths of both Theodora and Didymus, it is Irene who must endure, carrying the message of their sacrifice and working to sustain this fledgling Christian community.
On the surface, Septimius, too, should not have featured substantially in this tale. According to historical sources, Septimius was simply a witness to the deaths of a traitorous Roman soldier and his Christian lover. But in Morell’s adaptation, Septimius embodies the central emotional conflict between individual conscience and social duty. Handel writes several sublime arias for this important character, whose divided loyalties help garner our sympathy. This tension emerges at the outset in Act 1, Sc. 1, where Didymus confronts Valens over a religious decree threatening Christians, and Septimius already finds himself of two minds—caught between his master and his friend. But by Act 3 and his aria “From virtue springs each gen’rous deed,” Septimius’ character transformation attains full completion.
In hindsight, looking back some 250 years, we can now appreciate that Theodora is a landmark work. Handel’s own opinion of its worth was justified. Certainly the tone is more subdued than many of his operas and oratorios. This new production by Timothy Nelson responds to the work’s interiority, taking the whole as a rite of supreme drama—albeit on a more personal level. Indeed, we are meant to be moved by the plight of Theodora, whose religious convictions ground a strong, noble personality just as fully as they undergird the entire oratorio. Even more than that, Handel and Morell’s attention to supporting roles—primarily Septimius and Irene—ensure that dramatic interest never wavers. The end result is a non-stop emotional narrative, following multiple arcs that lead toward a transcendent conclusion deeply earned. To achieve such a conclusion satisfactorily required some of the greatest music ever written, and perhaps we are better positioned than Handel’s contemporaries to appreciate that feat.
© Jason Stell, 2019
One of Handel's most beloved arias from a masterpiece of Italian opera. Countertenor Daniel Moody delivers a deeply moving performance, accompanied by members of the SMF Baroque Players on period instruments. Include program notes and translation.
Vivaldi wrote dozens of scintillating stage works, including Orlando Furioso. In this video from 2014, contralto Sara Couden gives a commanding performance of the signature aria "Nel profondo."
Carsten Schmidt leads this performance for chorus and orchestra of Handel's Coronation Anthem ("Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened"), written in 1727 for the installment of George II. With program notes.
In 2019 Staunton Music Festival presented Handel's late masterpiece, the oratorio Theodora. In this Perspective, stage director Timothy Nelson reflects back on his conception for the production of Theodora as well as the magical combination of people and events that brought the performance to fruition.
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