Theodora took a vow of chastity, choosing martyrdom to marriage. Fortunately for us, Handel appreciated her steadfast virtue, and performances of his oratorio multiply and are fruitful. Even after a year when we've had Handel every single day, Theodora is interesting because it's quite "inward" and austere, like Theodora herself may have been.
The 2009 Salzburg Theodora can be heard online on demand for the next week HERE. This is the one with Christine Schäfer, Bejun Mehta and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra which alone should indicate something special. Theodora is "...a product of (Handel's) late maturity, that ultimately determines one’s enjoyment of a work that avoids spectacular flights and fancies but shines with inner radiance" said the Financial Times (full review HERE)
Theodora didn't sell out, and neither did Handel. Though there are cross-dressing hijinks, this story isn't "fun". The organ dominates, for the vow Theodora has made is stern and uncompromising, and the dark sound of the organ symbolizes the depth of her integrity. The orchestration is spare, closer perhaps to the spirit of Bach than to High Baroque ostentation. Schäfer sounds girlish and fragile, which makes the strength of her resolve all the more intense. Her steeliness is more convincing than ostensibly more "beautiful" and luscious voices.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's singing is glorious, but I couldn't stand the Glyndebourne production. Peter Sellars turned the oratorio into a Star Wars caricature. The Romans became futuristic androids in plastic suits, while the Christians languished in Grecian robes. Sellar's sci-fi setting was popular because people could relate to the story in simplistic terms, but it completely overwhelmed the music and the "real" story, which is infinitely more human and moving. In any case the Christians turned out to be the "future" not the Romans. More destructively, Sellars shifts the focus away from the spirituality in the music to the cartoon-like overlay. Pointless and destructive. The Salzburg production at least recognised the role of the music, placing the organ at the centre of the action on stage, as it is in the oratorio, and by extension, in the whole narrative. Less is definitely more, particularly in a work like Theodora which is predicated on ascetic austerity.
Another Theodora, this time from Paris in 2006. Listen to this performance (streamed online) from Opera Today. Emmanuelle Haϊm conducts the Orchestre et chor du Concert d'Astrée. Anne Sofie von Otter is Theodora, fitting in well with Haϊm's clean, unfussy approach. Theodora isn't a flight of gorgeous fantasy, but a story of strong human beliefs. The Glyndebourne elaboration perhaps made it easy on the eye rather than the mind, but why not set it in other periods where high-minded people like Theodora stand up to high-living corruption? The spartan Salzburg setting seems to have acknowledged this, and alluded to the point that there are plenty of Theodoras around, even now.