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English Concert Performing Handel
HANDEL'S ORATARIO THEODORA SPARKLES IN WEILL HALL CONCERT
by Joanna Bramel Young
Saturday, January 25, 2014
A Weill Hall audience January 25 was treated to a superb performance of Handel’s oratorio Theodora. For that we can thank the English Concert (not Consort), a highly polished baroque orchestra consisting of strings, oboes, bassoons, flute, horns, trumpets, harpsichord, organ and theorbo, along with five celebrated vocal soloists. Conductor Harry Bicket, artistic director of the Concert since 2007, expertly guided the orchestra in flawless support of both the soloists and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, twenty-four singers directed by Julian Wachner. The choir is considered one of New York City’s finest vocal ensembles and the Episcopal parish that is its home was founded in 1697.
Consisting of three acts with two intermissions, Theodora is unquestionably long. Unfortunately it seems that a full program of baroque music performed by these sterling musicians lacked sufficient appeal to fill Weill Hall. When the first notes were heard, the hall was perhaps two-thirds full; and each intermission brought more empty seats. It can be said that those who left early missed some true gems. In contrast, I attended a concert the previous evening in Belvedere’s Saint Stephens Church by a similar group of equal quality - the American Bach Soloists (baroque orchestra, chorus, and soloists) - and nearly every seat was filled until the final note sounded. At Weill Hall, audience members who had remained until the end rose joyfully to their feet and showed gratitude for the evening’s pleasures.
Conducting from the harpsichord, Mr. Bicket exhibited both energy and restraint. The opening Overture began in the traditional stately, heavily dotted style favored in the eighteenth century, and then erupted into a rousing fast section. The orchestra played with great precision and clarity, and succeeded in altering mood from stately to exuberant in an instant. Fast tempos were brilliantly played, leaving me deeply impressed by the facility of all the musicians.
The recitatives, which introduced each aria (or air, as Handel called it), were supported by a continuo of harpsichord or organ, theorbo and bass strings. An impressive-looking instrument, the theorbo is a large lute with a six-foot fingerboard, which enables it to produce gloriously resonant low notes.
The opening recitative and air were sung by bass-baritone Neal Davies, as Valens, who established his credentials as the villain of the story with his emphatic statement “Whoso disdains to join the sacred rites shall feel our wrath in chastisement, or death ....” Like all the soloists, Mr. Davies sang flawlessly; and he chose to dramatize his lines, making the listener want to hiss his evil ways. Countertenor David Daniels, (Didymus), the lover of Princess Theodora, exhibited a voice beautiful and powerful, carefully nuanced in both high and low registers. His da capo aria “The raptur’d soul defies the sword, secure of virtue’s claim...” was exquisite in its execution. Hearing such high notes coming from a man with a full beard and a robust chest must have surprised many listeners.
The role of Septimius, a Roman official friendly to the Christians, was performed by Kurt Streit (a tenor different from the one named in the program) who nonetheless had a stellar résumé. All the soloists’ résumés read like a Who’s Who of opera: in demand throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The choir was introduced early with the “Chorus of Heathens,” as they sang “And draw a blessing down...” accompanied by two brilliantly played baroque trumpets. After enjoying the stirring trumpets a few minutes into the oratorio, I was anticipating many more instrumental solos; but Handel tended not to feature solo instruments as extensively as Bach. For example, the oboes were only part of the “tutti” sections of the orchestral passages. A baroque flutist, not part of the orchestra, was featured in only two pieces half way through the work, and then was never heard again. In an orchestral interlude the flute played one soft held note; then the orchestra answered in a charming passage. Two horns were featured with the “Chorus of Heathens” with the words “while sweeter than the trumpets sound. ...” Like baroque trumpets, natural horns are extremely difficult to play, but these musicians made everything sound effortless. In the early to mid-twentieth century many of these baroque instruments were “resurrected”; but years passed before many of them were mastered; and now one no longer expects an occasional sour note from early brass. Nowadays young musicians begin their music studies on these instruments, and the most gifted among them develop the technique necessary to play them well.
Soprano Dorothea Röschmann sang the role of Theodora and Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano, portrayed her friend Irene. For Röschmann’s air “Fond, flatt’ring world, adieu!” the violins, playing in unison, echoed her words in sighing phrases. One of the most beautiful airs in the oratorio was sung by Ms. Connolly, “As with rosy steps the morn....” Playing pianissimo the strings allowed her voice to shine through. The balance between voice and orchestra was perfection.
Valens commands Septimius to tell Christian Theodora she must prostitute herself as punishment for not participating in a pagan ritual. His coloratura singing dramatized the words “Dread the fruits of Christian folly...” in a da capo aria. Theodora answers “Angels, ever bright and fair, take, oh take me to your care.” Her pleading “take me” is echoed by the strings to a moving effect.
Throughout the oratorio the soloists shone in their many recitatives and airs. Each had brilliant coloratura passages to negotiate, and all were executed effortlessly. Carefully rehearsed, the chorus achieved gratifying nuances. Near the end of the work Handel gave the chorus and orchestra the chance to perform a Bach-like great fugue in “Blest be the hand.” Theodora then sang unaccompanied, after which the chorus entered again, concluding the highly engaging fugue.
The work concluded with the choir, serving as the “Chorus of Christians,” singing a chorale reminiscent again of Bach: “O love divine, thou source of fame, of glory, and all joy!” The martyred hero and heroine have now risen to Heaven singing the lovely duet “Thither let our hearts aspire...and tune the lyre of the blissful holy choir.”
Theodora was scored to include tympani, but none were in evidence. They likely would have added vigor to the overall sound and was an unfortunate omission. Otherwise, the performance was profoundly satisfying, rich in pleasing airs that only Handel could create. He considered Theodora, written after Solomon and Susanna, his favorite oratorio; yet it was a failure when first performed in 1750. According to Wikipedia the librettist Morell quoted Handel as saying, “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.”