What’s the difference between oratorio and opera?” is a tricky question. For the most part, oratorios are spiritual, reflective works performed in concert; operas are dramatic, secular and for the stage. But the division does get blurred, and an example comes in Handel’s Theodora which has just had a high-profile, striking but conceptually hijacked staging by the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
Theodora is an oratorio, which means you might wonder what it’s doing at the Garden. But it has a plot, about an early Christian whose refusal to accept the Roman gods ends in her death. Up to a point, it comes with drama. And indeed it was first performed in this very theatre (or one on the same site) in 1750 – as were many of Handel’s oratorios. They weren’t designed for church performance, and sometimes came with scenery
But they were sung in English (Handel’s operas used Italian, principally because that was the language of his singers) and there was no action or costume, which made them cheaper to do. It’s often said that Handel’s oratorios were a response to rules prohibiting staged opera during Lent, but they were also prompted by economy: full stagings were expensive. Of no small relevance was Handel’s own belief. He was devout. The result is that a piece like Theodora has a certain prayerfulness that merits some consideration in performance.
How you do this as theatre isn’t easy. Some years ago there was a Glyndebourne staging by the director Peter Sellars that struck gold, setting a standard by which subsequent productions are judged. A judgement this latest Covent Garden effort only partly meets.
It has a dream cast, with American soprano Julia Bullock in the title role, the glamorous all-singing/dancing countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski as the Roman solder Didymus and, towering over the entire show, the magnificent Joyce DiDonato coupling moral force with dazzling technique in the pivotal role of Irene, Theodora’s confidante.
But the production is by Katie Mitchell, a director less interested in Handel’s prayerfulness than in her own agenda, which is to transform a story of Christian martyrdom into one of feminist opposition to colonial patriarchies. As ideas go, it’s of the moment but a tiresome trope. Her staging plays out like a Netflix thriller, with people endlessly pulling guns on each other. It’s compelling to watch but untruthful to the music.
Theodora proceeds at a slow, contemplative pace, with arias of extended duration that invite the audience to think about eternity. But that doesn’t fit Mitchell’s intentions any more than does the idea of the piece as a statement of faith. So at the same time as reducing its Christian context to a minimum, she fills the aching timespans with detailed stage business and high-action drama that in no way fits the score.
Worse still, she resorts to changing the denouement so that Theodora doesn’t die but is rescued and lives to fight another gun-toting day. For a feminist heroine, that’s fine. But for a Christian martyr it undermines the point of the story and destroys its concluding sense of what an old-time Handel scholar, Winton Dean, perceptively called “wounded sublimity”. The idea behind martyrdom was that, however tragic, it had purpose. Not, it seems, in the mind of Katie Mitchell.
One last gripe is that the sets are claustrophobically boxed in – serving Mitchell’s Netflix purposes but making it almost impossible for the voices to fly. The three leads, though impressive, could have sounded so much better in more sympathetic stage designs. And the Royal Opera chorus, too.
I’m not dismissing this production: it’s in many ways well done and has the kind of standout quality that wins awards. But it’s a classic case of a director with a point to make, and making it regardless. More a sales pitch than a reading.
l It doesn’t take a lot to sell the Sistene Chapel as a place of cultural importance, but the pitch tends to focus on the painters who adorned its surfaces, not the composers who supplied its music. Last month, though, the Tallis Scholars brought this music to Cadogan Hall, showcasing the Renaissance masters – Josquin, Palestrina, Allegri – who effectively composed the Sistene soundtrack. That nothing on the bill post-dated the Renaissance explained all too much about the chapel’s musical tradition, which failed to develop and went downhill through the 19th and 20th centuries when the resident choir lost its lustre.
It’s only recently that Sistene singing has regained some of its former glory, to a large extent by taking note of what ensembles such as the Tallis Scholars do (albeit with women on the topline). And though Cadogan Hall is no match for the Sistene acoustic, it exposed the elegant particularity the Scholars bring to repertoire that in less careful hands can swirl like mud. With just ten voices singing in unhurried, almost leisurely perfection, they were slightly underpowered and less robust than other groups these days. But no one gives more beauty to the sound. A class act, and a joy to hear.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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