Performance:

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

 

 

 

 

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