The trouble with Handel’s large-scale vocal works is that the nuggets of genuine treasure drown in the morass of composing-by-numbers (and plagiarism) which make up their inordinate length.
And so it is with one his last oratorios, Theodora, a mildly voyeuristic tale of threatened judicial rape upon a Christian woman refusing to celebrate false gods, and a work which spectacularly failed during its brief opening run in 1750. Perhaps the fashionable Londoners didn’t bother to stay for the end, thereby missing a final act where the quality of the music as Theodora and her protector Didymus prepare for execution far transcends anything that had gone before.
Colin Timms has worked hard to rehabilitate the work. Using his own new edition, clean and authoritative, he conducted a persuasive performance at the Barber Institute last Wednesday, venue of so many great Handel occasions under his great professorial predecessor, Anthony Lewis.
The youthful Birmingham University Singers sang the choruses of Heathens and Christians with brightness and a good sense of line, and the Musical and Amicable Society Baroque Orchestra (what an unwieldy, wordage-robbing name) was lithe and fresh-toned.
Louise Alder’s Theodora only really came to life in the final act’s generous music. William Towers as Didymus rang thrillingly at the top of his countertenor range, Timothy Mirfin was commanding but too much of a pantomime bass as the Roman apparatchik Valens, and Mark Chaundy’s Septimius, torn between his two polarised friends, was somewhat approximate in coloratura.
The star of the evening was undoubtedly Alexandra Gibson as Theodora’s confidante Irene, her mezzo tones full, thrilling, and capable of darkening where appropriate, and her stage presence mesmeric.
Rating * * * *