Handel’s Theodora for New Yorkers
The final Sunday of July brought New York’s music lovers a remarkable treat when Caramoor presented Handel’s Theodora, the composer’s 1749 oratorio.
Caramoor, now known as the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, is a former estate located near Katonah, New York, approximately 50 miles (80 km) north of New York City. Walter and Lucie Rosen – the estate’s original owners – built this house (shown above) in the 1930s. The site is their legacy, created in their son’s memory following his death during World War Two. Now recognized for the excellence of it programs (and especially the music programs in the summer), Caramoor continues to be popular, especially with many Manhattan enthusiasts, including the opera lovers this author runs with. All of us look forward to summertime concerts and presentations at this lovely place.
As for what I know about Theodora as an opera, I have to admit that until I read about the new production at London’s Royal Opera last winter, I knew very little about it. I had heard of it from time to time, but after I read about how it was presented at Covent Garden, I wanted to know more (although I’m not sure I agree with some of the production concepts and I’m very curious about what one writer referred to as the production’s “wonky ending”). And for anyone who’s interested, Operawire, a publication with which I am unfamiliar, published a curious review of what it called “a modernistic look at Handel.” The review – Royal Opera House 2021-2022 Review: Theodora – proved, once again, that an opera (or, in this case) an oratorio being performed as an opera, can succeed when “imaginative vision is blessed with luxury casting.”
So I could learn more, I searched through the various streaming services I use, and found – much to my delight – that William Christie with his much-praised Les Arts Florissants had performed Theodora in 2016 at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. I watched it and decided that my relative inexperience with Baroque music now needed to change (the Paris performance is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crhymnCEHQA). Then, sadly, I learned that Christie had just the previous year performed Theodora at Alice Tully Hall, right here at home. I’m sorry I missed that.
In the Caramoor publicity, Theodora is described as one of Handel’s finest creations. I can now understand why. The oratorio was, unfortunately, much undervalued, despite having its first performance at Covent Garden. Now it is recognized as a masterpiece. At Caramoor it was performed in a concert performance, but with all the opera-connected participants, I’m not sure whether we should call it an opera or an oratorio. And in the final analysis connected with a late Sunday afternoon of such stunning music, I don’t think any such distinction is necessary for what we heard.
As for the work itself, we first of all recognize that it wasn’t meant to be an opera, a story well told by Martin Pearlman, Music Director for Boston Baroque, the oldest period instrument orchestra in North America (founded in 1973):
“With Theodora, Handel’s second to last oratorio, the 64-year-old composer broke new ground. It is his only oratorio other than Messiah to be based on a Christian subject, but Messiah is a grand ceremonial work, while Theodora is intimate and deals with religious devotion and human nobility on a very personal level. Here there is a sense of serenity and tranquility that is quite different from what we find in his earlier oratorios.” [Pearlman, Martin. BOSTON BAROQUE Theodora Program Notes, May, 2003]
There’s no question about it: the story is dramatic (perhaps that’s why Theodora is often performed as an opera – many descriptions refer to the work as a “dramatic oratorio”). And it was not a success. The reviewer for The Economist described Handel’s situation following the first performances:
“How long can it take for a flop to become a smash? In the case of one of George Frideric Handel’s oratorios, the answer is around 250 years. In February 1750 the composer turned 65. A few weeks later the London audience which, for almost four decades, he had regaled with operas in Italian and sacred choral works in English, snubbed his latest offering. For the opening night of Theodora, the theatre at Covent Garden was half-empty.
Luck was against him: a pair of minor earthquakes had kept music-lovers at home. But Theodora was anyway a tough sell – a stately, sombre drama about a virtuous Christian heroine, martyred for her faith under a despotic Roman governor. ‘Never mind,’ the German-born maestro reportedly quipped of the disappointing house; ‘the music will sound better.’” [Handel’s contemporaries shunned “Theodora.” But it is a masterpiece. The Economist. January 29, 2022]
And while many of us – like one of my companions at the performance – react negatively to the male-superior/female submissive story line, that concern – it seems to me – is remarkably alleviated. Not only is there an inspiring story when we learn about the brave Christians as they are tortured and ultimately martyred by the Romans, the music has to be some of the most up-lifting music we’ve ever heard. And Handel’s splendid music puts that particular concern to rest.
Adding to the particular joy of the afternoon, the performance was preceded by a rewarding lecture from MIT professor emeritus and Handel scholar Ellen T. Harris. In her presentation, Dr. Harris surprised some of us (as she surprised me) with a bit of history that I never had encountered, that in 17th-century Britain, there were high levels of religious tolerance for all religions. Such almost-ideal circumstances came about through the Toleration Act 1688 (also called the Act of Toleration), an act of Parliament that, we learned, received royal assent on May 24, 1689. The act was probably influenced – according to many historians – by John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, written in 1685 and published in 1689), sometimes referred to as “the philosophical foundation for the English Act of Toleration of 1689.”
And even more interesting for us in the audience, we learned that not only were Handel and his librettist Thomas Morrell influenced by the general attitude of religious tolerance at the time. In fact, as it turns out, they included some of John Locke’s words directly into the work, especially for the lyrics to some of the music sung by Didymus, the Roman soldier who loves the Christian Theodora and who eventually converts and joins her in martyrdom.
Just incidentally for those who had been wondering when the oratorio moved into the world of opera – Professor Harris shared that it did not happen until the 20th century. For some reason, I had assumed that this particular “adapting” of the dramatic oratorio form into the even more dramatic format of opera had taken place in the mid- to late-nineteenth century but that didn’t happen. And well into the 20th century, one of the best (and most well-known) presentations – directed by Peter Sellers – seems likely to have been the now-famous 1996 Glyndebourne performance (with Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt, and David Daniels. It was conducted by William Christie and fits right into his well-deserved fame now clearly attached to the opera (and all else of Handel’s music). A perfect connection, it seems to me.
As for the performances, with the magnificent period-instrument Trinity Baroque Orchestra and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street we were treated to an inspired cast of well-respected opera-world audience favorites. The celebrated soloists (Marie-Eve Munger as Theodora, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Didymus, Daniela Mack as Irene, Alex Shrader as Septimius, and Tyler Duncan as Valens) were all exceptionally fine (as we’ve come to expect from each of them). And with Avi Stein conducting the entire ensemble, it was – to say the very least – a very satisfying program. With the performances and with the good sharing of background from Professor Harris, we were all provided with just what we needed for a rewarding intellectual, musical, and emotional experience. We will not soon forget last Sunday.