Handel’s musical friends claimed that Theodora was better than Messiah. The public disagreed – it was a resounding flop. The public had a point.
Its story of Christians persecuted and martyred by fourth century Romans has dramatic potential but is stultified by the Reverend Thomas Morell’s risible libretto – insipid pious claptrap, penned by a man who rhymed “Rome” with “doom”.
The music is pleasant, well-crafted and mellifluous but lacks Messiah’s brilliance and memorability. It’s Handel in third gear. Only in the Act II prison scene, where Theodora faces death does the music darken and Handel’s full powers are briefly engaged.
This Theodora, with Harry Bicket directing The English Concert from the keyboard, was ardent, stylish and eloquently performed – given the limitations of the material.
In the title role Rosemary Joshua’s sweet-toned lyric soprano was perfect for the spotless Christian virgin’s prayer Angels ever bright and fair, and was well complemented by Sarah Connolly’s rich well-focused mezzo-soprano as her friend Irene.
Handel wrote the role of Theodora’s lover the Roman soldier Didymus, a closet Christian convert, for a castrato and brilliantly exploited the voice’s ethereal qualities.
Countertenor Tim Mead floated some gorgeous high notes, gracefully caressing the words. Kurt Streit almost made the paper-thin Septimius into a credible character, vehemently railing against the “Dread fruits of Christian folly”.
Jonathan Best (a late replacement for indisposed Neal Davies) was gruff but reliable as Valens. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street was in fine voice, splendid both as bloodthirsty lustful pagans and pious Christians.