CANBERRA Choral Society’s performance of Handel’s penultimate oratorio Theodora was presented yesterday at the Playhouse to audience acclaim.
Guest conductor Brett Weymark brought this relatively obscure work to life in an English language version performed with period instruments.
“Theodora” originally premiered in 1750 in the aftermath of a minor earthquake. Yesterday, Canberra Choral Society presented the 1759 revision of the work with abridged arias.
Artistic director and counter-tenor Tobias Cole raised funds for the production through crowd-funding ventures. Theodora is part of Cole’s long-term aim of presenting one Handel oratorio every year in Canberra.
Despite its complexity, length and restrained instrumental colour, Handel considered “Theodora” to be his finest oratorio, a view that the audience of the day, sadly, did not share. Today “Theodora,” with its lexicon of Baroque devices and affectations reveals Handel as an artist at the very height of his compositional career.
An oratorio in three Acts, “Theodora” is set in Antioch during the Roman occupation. It tells the story of the fourth-century Christian martyr Theodora (Greta Bradman) and her lover Didymus (Tobias Cole). Her refusal to participate in pagan sacrifices causes Theodora to be condemned by Roman president Valens (Stephen Bennet) to “public lust” followed by execution. The Roman officer Didymus falls in love with her and secretly converts to Christianity. He pleads with Valens to spare her, offering himself to die in her place. His arguments serve only to incense Valens, who then sentences them both to die. As in all proper martyrdom stories, the lovers leave the world with the belief that their love will transcend even death.
The two-part choir, comprised of Canberra Choral Society and Kompactus, were strengthened by singers from the School of Music. It was a great pleasure to see Music School director Peter Tregear hopping from one chorus to another in order to support all choral parts. One need not point out that Tregear’s recent predecessors made no such efforts to support the musical community.
The choral performances, overall, were magnificent. Handel’s favourite chorus “He saw the lovely youth”, a complex work of three-part
polyphony, was exceptional – as was the final chorus of the Christians, “O love divine”, a prayer that the living may prove worthy of the martyrs.
The small Baroque chamber orchestra revealed deep understanding of period timbres, terraced dynamics and ornamentation. The string players maintained near-perfect intonation despite the difficulties presented by the use of gut-strings. Particularly impressive was the first violinist Bianca Porcheddu, whose caramel sonorities often accompanied a dulcet baroque oboe played by Kirsten Barry.
Special mention should be made of Harpsichordist James Huntingford whose deceptively difficult part underpins much of the oratorio. Huntingford’s subtle ornamentation complimented the surprisingly sweet tones drawn from the instrument.
Greta Bradman, in the title role of Theodora, belied the old stereotype about sopranos who can’t act. Her seamless musical performance was strengthened by a dramatic presence that never felt wooden or forced. Bradman produces an extraordinarily rich tone, a colour closer to mezzo than soprano, and her effortless pianissimo notes delighted the audience. Bradman particularly shone in her aria “Oh, that I on wings could rise”, delivered with tragic dignity and expressiveness.
Mezzo-soprano Christina Wilson as Irene, and Tenor Paul McMahan as Septimus both gave accomplished performances of those difficult roles. Stephen Bennet was satisfyingly diabolical in his role of Valens and his arias consistently revealed a full and rich bass tone.
The unchallenged star of the afternoon, for this reviewer, was the magnificent counter-tenor Tobias Cole in the role of Didymus. Acclaimed last year as “the perfect fairy king” for his performance of Oberon in Opera Australia’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cole brought that same otherworldly quality to Handel’s Theodora.
His utterly weightless melisma, perfect trills, flawless intonation and ornamentation cast a spell over the audience each time he took the stage. His portrayal of the passionate Didymus was always evocative without succumbing to melodrama – and his tonal quality was simply sublime. It is rare to find a counter-tenor of this calibre anywhere in the world, rare even on the great stages of Europe, and I hope we all realise just how lucky we are that Cole chooses to live and work here in Canberra.