Handel: Theodora

Handel: Theodora
Basingstoke Choral Society, Hanover Band, Erica Eloff
The Anvil, Basingstoke. 2 July 2016

Local choral societies do not normally come within my reviewing remit, but the addition of the period instrument orchestra, The Hanover Band and the outstanding soprano Erica Eloff to the event at my local concert hall proved irresistible. The Basingstoke Choral Society has local roots going back to the late 19th century. An 1889 programme of a performance of Elijah by its predecessor, the Basingstoke Musical Society, mentions a choir of around 100 singers. For this performance of Handel’s oratorio Theodora, they fielded 108 singers, with 38 sopranos, 38 altos, 13 tenors and 18 bass singers, arranged in six rows overflowing from the stage on the rear stalls seats.

Theordora is a curious work. One of Handel’s least successful productions, it only ran for three poorly attended performances, and was only revived once during Handel’s lifetime. It was one of his last oratorios, written when Handel was 64, and is now seen as a masterpiece, with some notably arias and choruses. The story is unusual when compared with other Handel oratorios and operas. It is based on the story of a fourth century Princess who refused to honour the local Roman Governor’s demand that everybody join in the sacrifice to the Goddesses Venus and Flora in honour of the Emperor’s birthday. Didymus, a Roman convert and in love with Theodora, pleads for mercy for Theodora, but Valens, the Governor, decides that loyalty to the Emperor is more important to him than his own sympathies. And so the tale unfolds, with Theodora confined in (and then escaping from) a brothel, but without the last minute twist and happy ending that was usual at the time, and which the audience probably expected. After pleas of ‘kill me, not him/her’, both Theodora and Didymus are executed, a moment revealed in spectacular goriness in the (fully staged) 1995 Glyndebourne production, but here rather nicely depicted by the pair walking off-stage, hand in hand.

Apart from some very effective and subtle interaction between Theodora and Didymus (Erica Eloff and Benjamin Williamson), this was presented in its intended form, as an oratorio, with no sense of staging or dramatic realisation. That allows the listener to concentrate on the singers’ development of their character, rather than witnessing Publicity photo - Sussie Ahlburgthat through the lens of an opera director whose interpretation (as at Glyndebourne) might be far removed from that of Handel. And it was here that soprano Erica Eloff (pictured) excelled. An imposing figure, clad entirely in white as befitted her noble and virginal state, she revealed an exceptional emotional depth in her interpretation of Theodora’s persona. Her subtle expressions and glances at Didymus were all that was needed to bring her character to life, for example when she silently leant down to whisper in Didymus’s ear asking him to kill her. But overriding that was the beauty of her singing. The purity and clarity of her voice was ideally suited, both to the role and the music, but also to the style of the period instrument orchestra, where issues like phrasing, articulation and avoidance of vibrato are paramount.

Countertenor Benjamin Williamson (Didymus) started off with rather too much vibrato, but this soon settled down sufficiently for him to sing the long-held notes in ‘Kind Heav’n if virtue be thy care’ with the required purity. Dingle Yandell was very effective as the Governor Valens, his attractive voice avoiding the temptation to portray Valens as the ogre that he probably was. Jorge Navarro Colorado was an effective Septimus and Claire Barnett-Jones provided a vocal contrast to Theodora in her role as Irene, a supporter of Theodora.

The choruses in Theodora are generally depicting either Christians or Heathens, the former largely restricted to rather serious (and often tricky) fugues; the latter having by far the most musical fun. That was notably in their jovial opening chorus of Act 2, ‘Queen of summer, queen of love’, depicting the celebrations for the Goddesses. This was the only piece they sang without their heads buried in scores, and they clearly enjoyed it. I am not sure if the loud crashing sound as they collapsed back into their seats was intended, although this was one of the very few moments in the entire work where the giggles from the audience seemed appropriate. Considering their enormous collective size, the choir made a pretty good job of keeping things tight. They were particularly good when all singing together at full volume although, as is inevitably the case with local amateur choral societies, some of the more exposed individual lines in the fugues were slightly less effective. They could also have done with more practice at standing up and sitting down all at the same time – this was rather ragged, at times looking rather like a Mexican Wave.

It is the nature of such events that the choir would have been rehearsing their choruses for several weeks (in a different venue), but the soloists and orchestra were probably only brought together for an afternoon rehearsal on the day of the concert. That brings all sorts of potential problems, not least in coordinating everything. Conductor David Gibson did well to keep things together although, given the rehearsal limitations, his ability to bring rather more interpretive subtlety to the music was limited. Although there were occasional lapses of intonation from the upper strings, The Hanover Band were on good form, with notable contributions from the inevitably busy continuo cellist Poppy Walshaw and organist Bernard Robertson.

photo:  Sussie Ahlburg

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