Sunday, February 09, 2014

Rosy Joshua in Theodora

Rosy bowing with colleagues after Theodora
To the Barbican last night with Daughter to see our friend Rosy Joshua sing Theodora. I had never heard this work (despite Daughter's second name being Theodora!) and it is a MASTERPIECE! I am so glad to have heard it for the first time in such an excellent performance - though I wish I'd heard it 30 years ago!

The English Concert was expertly conducted by Harry Bicket and Rosy's friend the great Sarah Connolly sung the relatively minor role of Irene - presumably to have the joy of singing with Rosy. Tim Mead sung the hero Didymus and Neal Davies as Valens the tyrannical governor ("President" in the libretto - I wonder why?). Kurt Streit stepped in to sing Septimus at short notice. The chorus was the Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

What can I say?  The performers were all first rate and inspired by some of the most sublime music ever written.  Rosy was as ever terrific - bringing out the true heroism and humanity of a heroine who can to late 20th century eyes seem a bit of a fanatic. The story is that Theodora, a Christian, refuses to worship the Roman Gods so Valens sentences her to be gang-raped by his troops. She would rather die and is rescued by Christian soldier Didymus who takes her place. She flees to safety, but when she hears that Didymus has been condemned to death in her place she returns, asking to be executed in his stead. Valens has them both killed. 

I said "late 20th century" advisedly because we are I think more sensitive to issues of conscience and to the horrors of gang rape now. Indeed Didymus says in his defence to Valens that it was no crime "to hinder you from perpetrating That // which would have made you odious to Mankind // at least the fairest Half."

Back to the performance: Valens was suitably villainous and curt, Didymus was very lyrical, Kurt Streit sung the relatively minor but pivotal role of Septimus superbly - torn between his duty as an Officer, his close friendship with Dydimus and his sense of justice - indeed in the main source, of which more anon, Septiumus becomes a Christian at the end.  And Rosy was triumphantly successful as the pivot of the whole piece, having just the right balance of principle and concern and a voice of radiant beauty.

Of course the real star of the show was Handel. He wrote this in 1684 and it was first performed in 1685 a few months before Bach died. Handel must have known of the ill-health of his great contemporary and it's possible that this could have influenced him to write some of the most sublime music he ever penned. The chorus "He saw the lovely Youth" about Jesus raising the son of a widow from death is completely stunning.

Most commentators heap contempt on Rev Thomas Morell who was Handel's librettist for this and at least 4 others including the undoubted masterpieces Judas Maccabeus and Jephtha. The programme notes here say he was "no poet.. insipid" etc.. But the fact that he was Handel's close collaborator and friend foe at least 3 masterpieces should give pause for thought!  A libretto doesn't stand alone but is in conjunction with the music. Morell was also an FRS and in fact his main source was a novella by his fellow FRS Robert Boyle who like many of the greatest pioneer scientists was a deeply committed Christian who wrote extensively on theology.

This was the penultimate stop in a tour of the US and Europe - you can catch this performance in Paris tomorrow.

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