|George Frideric Handel|
Theodora (HWV 68) is an oratorio in three acts by George Frideric Handel, set to an English libretto by Thomas Morell. The oratorio concerns the Christian martyr Theodora and her Christian-converted Roman lover, Didymus.
Context, Analysis, and Performance History
Handel wrote Theodora during his last period of composition. He was sixty-four years old when he began working on it in June 1749. He had written the oratorios Solomon and Susanna the previous year. Theodora would be his penultimate oratorio.
Theodora differs from the former two oratorios because it is a tragedy, ending in the death of the heroine and her converted lover. The music is much more direct than the earlier works, transcending the mediocrity of the libretto (which was true for several of Handel's works) so that the characters and the drama are well-defined.
Thomas Morell (1703–1784) had worked with Handel before on several oratorios. He and Handel were good friends; the composer left the librettist 200 pounds in his will. Morell's source for the libretto was The Martyrdom of Theodora and of Didymus (1687) by Robert Boyle, the scientist. He also borrowed from Corneille's Théodore, Vierge et Martyre. Morell arguably improved on Boyle, eliminating the moralising messages and creating a better structure.
Handel finished the oratorio on 31 July 1749, and its premiere was on 16 March 1750. Pityingly, Theodora was a failure and only played three times. There are at least two explanations for this. First, the theme of persecution may have been too "progressive" for Londoners at the time. Secondly,an earthquake that transpired about a week before the premiere had prevented some of the city's nobility from coming. It was the least performed of all his oratorios, being revived only once in 1755.
There are two surviving quotes of Handel about Theodora. Morell quotes Handel as saying "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one." Handel's colleague Burney took note when two musicians asked for free tickets for Messiah and Handel responded "Oh your servant, meine Herren! you are damnable dainty! you would not go to Theodora - there was room enough to dance there, when that was perform"!
Theodora was actually Handel's favorite of his oratorios. The composer himself ranked the final chorus of Act II, "He saw the lovely youth," "far beyond" "Hallelujah" in Messiah.
It has sometimes been staged as an opera, most notably in the highly acclaimed 1996 production by Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne. This production, conducted by William Christie, starred Dawn Upshaw as Theodora, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Irene and David Daniels as Didymus. It has been issued on DVD by Warner Music.
The original libretto included an extra scene in which Septimius converted to Christianity himself, however this was never set by Handel, though it was printed.
The second scene in Act 2 was also subject to several revisions by Handel.
- Theodora, a Christian of noble birth (soprano)
- Didymus, a Roman Officer, converted by and in love with Theodora (originally alto castrato, performed by alto countertenors or contraltos)
- Septimius, another Roman soldier and friend to Didymus (tenor)
- Valens, President of Antioch (bass)
- Irene, a Christian and friend of Theodora (mezzo-soprano)
- Messenger (tenor)
- Chorus of Christians
- Chorus of Heathens
- Giulia Frasi (Theodora)
- Gaetano Guadagni (Didymus)
- Thomas Lowe (Septimius)
- Henry Theodore Reinhold (Valens)
- Caterina Galli (Irene)
The 4th century AD. Valens, the governor of Antioch (occupied by the Romans) issues a decree that in honour of Diocletian's birthday all citizens will offer sacrifice to Roman goddesses Venus and Flora on pain of punishment, and puts Septimius in charge of enforcing this.
Didymus, a soldier asks that citizens whose consciences prevent this be spared punishment, which Valens dismisses. Septimius suspects Didymus is a Christian and affirms his own loyalty to the rule but would also like to be tolerant of others.
In the Christian community, Theodora (a princess) and her friend Irene are worshipping when a messenger brings news of Valens' decree. Irene prevents them dispersing and they reaffirm their faith. Theodora speaks out when Septimius comes to arrest them - Theodora is not punished by death (an option she would prefer to her actual punishment of enforced prostitution) and is led away. Irene informs Didymus who goes in the hope of either rescuing her or dying with her. The first Act closes with a chorus of Christians praying for the mission's success.
At the start of the second Act the festival is in full swing. Valens sends Septimius to tell Theodora that if she doesn't join in with the festival by the end of the day, he will send soldiers to rape her, which excites the soldiers. Theodora is frightened in the brothel, but her mood changes in contemplation of the after life. By persuading Septimius of his Christianity and also love for Theodora, Didymus gets access to her cell with his helmet concealing his identity, offering an escape. Fearing threats to her integrity and wishing to stay true to her faith, Theodora asks Didymus to kill her but he convinces her that God will save them. He gives her his uniform, and thus disguised, Theodora escapes, leaving Didymus in her place.
As the third part opens the Christians celebrate Theodora's safe return. However she is guilty that she endangered Didymus's life to do this. A messenger informs them Didymus has been captured and Valens has changed her punishment to death. Irene protests, but Theodora goes to offer herself in Didymus' place. As Valens sentences Didymus, Theodora enters demanding that she die and Didymus be saved. Both Didymus and Theodora argue that they should die in place of the other. Septimius is moved by this, and pleads for clemency. Valens, however, condemns both to death and they sing a duet to their immortality.
The oratorio has a good variety of arias and choruses. Most of the solo pieces are da capo arias. There are three duets, the last being a sublime piece in which Theodora and Didymus die.
Handel uses trumpets, horns, and drums in the Roman scenes and flutes are in the prison scene, but some arias are very lightly accompanied which raises them far above the text.
The oratorio is scored for 2 sections of violins, violas, cellos, double basses, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, and organ. A harpsichord and violoncello play the continuo.
Some noteworthy arias/duets/choruses
- "Descend, kind Pity" (Septimius)
- "Fond, flatt'ring World" (Theodora)
- "As with rosy steps the Morn" (Irene)
- "Wide Spread his Name" (Valens)
- "To Thee, Thou glorious Son" (Theodora and Didymus)
- "He saw the lovely Youth" (Chorus of the Christians)
- "Lord to Thee" (Irene)
- "How strange their ends" (Chorus of the Romans)
- "Streams of Pleasure ever flowing/ Thither let our Hearts aspire" (Didymus, then with Theodora)
- "O Love Divine" (Chorus with Irene)
- "Go, gen'rous, pious Youth" (Chorus)
- "Bane of Virtue (Irene)
- Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra (dir. William Christie - producer Peter Sellars, 1995, Dawn Upshaw (Theodora), Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Irene), David Daniels (Didymus) and Richard Croft (Septimius)
- Gabrieli Consort and Players (dir. Paul McCreesh) - Susan Gritton (Theodora), Robin Blaze (Didymus), Susan Bickley (Irene), Paul Agnew (Septimius), Neal Davies (Valens)
- Les Arts Florissants (dir. William Christie) - Sophie Daneman (Theodora), Daniel Taylor (countertenor) (Didymus), Juliette Galstian (Irene), Richard Croft (Septimius), Nathan Berg (Valens)
- U. C. Berkeley Chamber Choir, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (dir. Nicholas McGegan) - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Theodora), Drew Minter (Didymus), J. Lane (Irene), Jeffrey Thomas (Septimius), David Thomas (Valens)
- Complete libretto hosted by Stanford University.