English Concert’s Theodora

The EC have been touring Handel’s late, great oratorio Theodora to critical acclaim, and with a fabulous cast.  At the Barbican, Tim Mead shone particularly brilliantly; Sarah Connolly sounded slightly under par, but still gorgeous; Neal Davies, as ever, marred his dramatic performance by too much, and too tight, vibrato; Kurt Streit could have been warmer on occasion, but was a fine soldier.  Rosemary Joshua isn’t up to the eponymous role:  she suits a lighter character such as Semele, but she lacks bottom for a Theodora, and she has too much vibrato, all too often masking out-of-tune singing.

The choir was excellent, and mainly managed decent English pronunciation.

The cuts were fine – abridgements of recitatives – for this is a long work (four hours).  Why, though, he chose to insert an extra aria for Theodora towards the end, I don’t know – it’s not in the original or in the revival; it was added sometime later, and is superfluous.

My gripe, as usual, is with the conducting.  There’s no one in Britain who can conduct Handel properly.  Conductors tend to subscribe to ‘mean Handel’, taking the slow bits too fast and the fast bits too slow.  Bickett is a case in point.  The man seems to know no distinction between largo and andante, and andante and allegro.  This causes severe problems for pacing, which at various points he tried to cover up by cheap orchestral surges (oh, this bit needs drama – let’s give it a string attacca and lots of plinky-plonky theorbo:  this is current early music fashion, and it’s crass), or by changing the orchestration, putting in solo instruments where the score calls for tutti.  (Harry, dear, trust Handel – he really knew what he was doing.)  Continuing on general pacing before getting back to tempi, he’s almost got the idea of differentiating pauses between numbers, so that a recit may go straight into an aria, or there may be a little pause, and an aria may go straight into the next recit, or there may be a little pause.  Most conductors pause too much, meaning that arias become a bit stand-alone, and the drama is broken up.  He tended to much the other way, and a few occasions a dramatic pause was kicked out in favour of rushing in with the next bit of recit.

Onto some specifics.  Valens’ first aria is marked ‘pomposo.’  There was nothing pompous about it – it was pretty well the same tempo as his next utterance, the allegro ‘Racks, gibbets, sword and fire’.  The sarabandes at end of Acts I and III weren’t slow and sarabandish enough.  The Menuet at beginning of Act II wasn’t danceable at all – it was far too allegro:  it’s supposed to be the formal dance of the Roman sacrificial ball.  Septimius’ aria ‘Tho’ the honours’ calls for solo cello:  Handel actually writes that in the score.  Nowhere else:  this did not deter Bickett, who put in random solos when he felt like it. This may sound trivial, but it’s not – lots of strings have a different effect to one string, and Handel knew what sound he wanted.  The end of Act II ‘He saw the lovely youth’ is a very complicated chorus owing to its several messages; it is marked Largo. It has rests alternating between treble and bass lines, and the full effect of this is only achieved if you take it slow enough – Bickett didn’t. Handel’s incredible subtlety was completely lost.

Ivan Hewitt’s review in the Torygraph is fair and good, for a non-specialist.  However, I’d like to take him up on a couple of points. ‘Really it was the expectation of another heavenly number that kept me riveted, not the drama.  But each one fixed a mood of resignation or heroic fortitude so perfectly that those cardboard figures on the Barbican platform actually flickered into life – which really was a miracle.’ Well, not really a miracle – just what Handel’s music does. You can find the same in his other oratorios. It’s nothing to do with the performance.  ‘And there was some light relief, such as the moment when the chorus (playing the Roman citizens) look forward to some torturing of Christians in a jolly little number.’

‘Jolly little number’.  Sort of.  I presume he means the chorus ‘For ever thus stand fix’s’.  It’s in 12/8 – just the same, for example, as ‘Happy we’ in Acis and Galatea. It’s also in a pastoral F major (with 2 horns to boot!). The F-ness shows their comfort with the punishment – i.e. execution’s perfectly normal:  this is to heighten the contrast with Valens’ next move – an unacceptable decree that Theodora be raped.  The trouble is that by conducting every other andante and allegro in exactly the same way, you don’t get this at all.

In short, some superb singing and playing; not lamentable conducting – just entirely unimaginative and lacking any depth.

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