Even with a starry new castrato in the role of Theodora’s heroic and beloved Didymus, the work struggled and languished. It has taken 272 years to return to the site of its premiere, today the Royal Opera House. And however seismic and unstable Westminster may still be, here in Covent Garden is singing of great and rare loveliness and consolation.
Theodora, in service to the Romans in a prosperous, up-to-date, household, secretly practises her Christianity with others in thrall to depraved Valens. When her faith is detected, she is condemned to work as a prostitute. But the Christians persevere, lead by Irene, and Didymus comes to Theodora’s rescue, risking his own life.
Julia Bullock as Theodora and Joyce DiDonato as Irene. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
It’s a short simple story told over three hours in Handel’s most exaltant music, conducted here by early music specialist Harry Bicket. With soprano Julia Bullock as Theodora, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Irene and tenor Ed Lyon as sometimes sympathetic guard Septimius, we know we are in for a treat. But the house debut of Polish countertenor Jakub Jósef Orliński is an extra thrill.
This bright and coltish voice flies apparently effortlessly through the role Handel wrote for his new star. Perhaps not since Andreas Scholl rocked audiences with his British debut in Handel's Rodelinda at Glyndebourne in 1998 have we heard a male voice that soars so glowingly through the highest notes. Meanwhile the matchless DiDonato, decorating her fabulous arias with ornament reminiscent of gospel music, delivers showstopper after showstopper with grace.
Theodora was not written as an opera: 18th-century London audiences were tiring of labyrinthine, foreign-language plots, and Handel turned his hand to oratorio, telling simpler stories in English and compensating for the loss of blousy stage effects with dazzling music.
Sadly, director Katie Mitchell does not trust the composer enough to let the music do the work but, in this operatic staging, dilutes the many great arias with fussy business. Four box sets slide back and forth in Chloe Lamford's design – we are mostly in the kitchen, where a knife rack forms an illicit crucifix and servants noodle endlessly, but also visit a room of state, the brothel to which Theodora is condemned (and from which she escapes with cartoonish ease), and a walk-in fridge.
The Christians are cornered. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
An island in the kitchen and a table in the reception room maroon soloists and chorus a long way upstage, threatening the musical balance and excluding the audience.
Much has been made of the appointment of intimacy co-ordinator Ita O'Brien at Covent Garden, but the Act Two brothel scene proves to be unexpectedly, perhaps inappropriately, entertaining, with spectacular poledancing (movement director Sarita Piotrowski). A clothes swop between Theodora and Didymus succeeds where it could have failed comically, six-footers in sequinned mini-dresses (costume designer Sussie Juklin-Wallen) not generally able to pull off that look.
With this big step up after an irritating first act, hopes were high for the finale. And then Mitchell, who has already fiddled about with some bomb-making, just changes the ending, ignoring every note and word of what has gone before. There are two versions of Christianity in this Theodora. There is that of Handel and his librettist Thomas Morrell: one of service, forgiveness, hope, sacrifice and acceptance. And then there is Mitchell’s murderous, Christmas-tree worshipping, cult. Five-star singing; one-star direction.
Mitchell has promised her 16-year-old daughter that she won’t direct any more works in which the heroine kills herself. Yes, that rules out Madam Butterfly, say, but maybe have a crack at Beethoven’s Fidelio instead. Don’t, I would say, rewrite works by people who knew what they were doing. Until a manuscript is found that shows Shakespeare's Juliet abandons Romeo’s body and marries a Greek waiter, audiences are pretty much OK with playwrights doing their own writing and composers their own composing, thank you.
Theodora is sung in English with English subtitles. Performances are on 2, 4, 7, 12, 14 and 16 Feb. Not suitable for audiences under the age of 16.
|What||Theodora, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
31 Jan 22 – 16 Feb 22, Seven performances with two intervals
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|