Handel’s oratorios were not composed for the theatrical stage where, in England, religious dramas were forbidden until the 20th century. Bankrupted by his endeavors in the field of grand opera, Handel turned to religious works as a way to save money on costumes and sets while exploiting his gift for making drama melodious – and his talent was too strong for such exciting stories (Saul, Judas Maccabeus, Samson, et al.) not to inspire exciting theater.
Today, with his operas once more in vogue and the style of singing he wrote for once again studied and appreciated, opera companies often turn to these dramas in English. They differ from baroque operas in ways that the audience for later opera is only inclined to appreciate: the chorus, for instance – incidental in Handelian opera, a machine driven by solo singers – leaps to the foreground in the oratorios, and is the inspiration for many of Handel’s finest compositions.
The librettos of several of these unstaged dramas are based on stage plays – Hercules follows Sophocles, for instance, and Athaliah and Esther are derived from Racine. But how are the arias of Handel’s oratorios – which tend to be lengthy meditations on this or that aspect of the plot, or moral commentaries on the story – to be performed as dramatic actions? And how are they to be integrated with the further commentaries of the chorus? These are the questions to which anyone seeking to stage one of the oratorios must find serious answers.
Theodora, the only one of the dramatic oratorios based on a Christian theme and one of Handel’s own favorites, was presented by the Glyndebourne Festival in 1999 in a staging by Peter Sellars, who made his reputation with his weird but often witty updatings of 18th-century operas. (His Handel Giulio Cesare and Mozart trilogy are available on video.) Sellars notoriously takes great care to secure first rate singing actors, and he has clearly worked Theodora out with both soloists and chorus. The result, which earned universal praise and excitement, is a most happy choice for recorded immortality.
Theodora is the tale of a princess in Roman Antioch who refuses to offer incense to the Roman gods in the Emperor’s honor – which is something like refusing to salute the flag or sing the national anthem nowadays. The Roman “president”, Valens, orders her taken to “the vile place” and offered to the soldiers for their amusement – a fate a great deal worse than death to chaste Theodora. However, Didymus, a Roman soldier who is in love with her, sneaks into her prison cell and persuades her to change clothes with him and escape – leaving him for the soldiers. Outraged, Valens condemns Didymus to death, and Theodora happily joins him in martyrdom.
Sellars – would he be able to set an opera in the period in which it is written? We may never know – has made this drama contemporary in costume, with a nod to Ancient Rome in his set: giant versions of Roman glassware, cracked and broken to indicate, perhaps, the moral state of the Roman polity. The “president” wears a suit and tie, and signs death sentences with a ballpoint. The soldiers wear red military jumpsuits and plastic helmets. The pagans wear red and blue, and signal the unwholesome “sweetness” of their religion with cans of soft drinks. The Christians wear white and black, and Didymus and Theodora sing their last duet strapped to tables while lethal injections are administered. But the famous Sellars jokiness is understated here – he has matured, and pared down the jokes, and the scene of an orgy is stylized and brief.
The remarkable, the extraordinary thing about the look of this production is the series of hand gestures and mime that Sellars has devised for each of his characters to illustrate the text they are singing, gestures to which the exceptional cast and chorus give eloquent life.
In Act II, for example, we find Theodora alone, awaiting her fate – the set is an oblong of light on a dark stage, the corners guarded by soldiers. Handel has written a set piece for his heroine, a double aria in which she confronts her terrors with a faith into which Handel skillfully lets doubt intrude, and then yearns for the freedom of a dove to escape. It is a long scene and, in concert, might be tedious. As acted by Dawn Upshaw (whose polished, beautiful singing has already made the character clear to us), we feel Theodora struggling with hysteria in “With darkness deep as is my woe”: she paces her dungeon, writhes on her bed, tries to reassure herself. Then, in “Oh, that I on wings could fly”, she cradles a mimed dove in her arms and tosses it aloft, circling her head as if to follow its flight. The action suits the words and the music of the drama to perfection, and the performance of all of it holds our attention and moves our pity.
Sellars has created such moments for the entire action, and his actors perform them with the flare of dancers, all the while singing extremely well. Upshaw is matched by David Daniels’ sympathetic, brave but bashful Didymus, by Frode Olsen as the corrupt Valens, by Lorraine Hunt as the leader of the Christian congregation, and by Richard Croft as a Roman soldier who aids Didymus out of pity for the Christians. All five are actors who could hold any stage if they couldn’t sing a note, but all five happen to have lovely voices – Upshaw, Hunt and Daniels are world famous and world class – and they sing elaborate and exquisite Handelian ornament for dramatic effect, rather than to show off. The ensemble is something any director would sacrifice to any deity to obtain.
The chorus, too, are actors and singers of merit. Sellars has them, also, “illustrate” the words they sing – a gesture to the sky for deity or holiness, a palm offered gracefully to depict virtue or mercy, a hundred details – and the pace is varied by Handel’s counterpoint: sopranos rise from their seats and sing their line, then tenors join them (and the sopranos sit), then basses, then altos, and the rising and sitting, and the sequenced gestures, following the several entrances of Handelian choral writing, create a visual harmony that matches the harmony we are hearing. One has not seen a Handelian oratorio “enactment” so perfectly realized since Mark Morris choreographed “Il Penseroso e L’Allegro”.
In previous videos of Sellars’ work (he is said to insist on control of all filming of his work – they do have a distinctive look, quite unlike other opera videos), his determination to maintain absolute control over the viewer’s attention has been irritating. Not only did he demand absolute control of his performers’ every gesture at every moment, he demanded absolute control of the eyes of his audience. You had to see every gesture Sellars created, usually in close-up, and if two people gestured at once, or one of them had a larger body than would fit in the shot, that was your problem. Sellars refused to back off; he wanted you to look here, not there. You could not see what the crowd was doing. You could not look at the set. You could not rest for a moment.
Theodora seems to be evidence that some critique has reached him. While close-ups are frequent, they do not usually obstruct our perception of the larger stage picture. One might prefer more frequent tableaus during the great choruses, but there is a method here: we are intended to see the crowd as consisting of individuals, reacting to the central events in individual ways, even if they sing identical text. After all, Theodora is the tale of a Roman soldier who virtuously breaks rank.
Unlike most opera videos, this is one you will want to see frequently, to get the nuances of the performances and to share it with others.
– John Yohalem