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Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen: Handel's Theodora

Jonathan Cohen sitting on wooden steps

Theodora was once considered second-rate, but, with its dramatic story of religious persecution, which inspired from Handel some of his most moving music, it bears comparison with the Passions of JS Bach.

Handel once reportedly observed that what the English liked was something that ‘hit them on the drum of the ear’. The ‘victory’ oratorios prompted by Butcher Cumberland’s crushing of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion – Judas Maccabaeus, The Occasional Oratorio and Joshua – had meshed perfectly with the bellicose national mood. But the oratorios that followed, Solomon, Susanna and Theodora, all far richer works, proved much less popular. The last of these, Handel’s sole religious drama set in Christian times, was the biggest flop of all, surviving for a mere three performances at Covent Garden in the 1750 Lenten season and revived just once in 1755.

According to the (admittedly biased) memoirs of the librettist, the Revd Thomas Morell, Handel valued Theodora ‘more than any Performance of the kind’, placing the chorus ‘He saw the lovely youth’ far beyond the Hallelujah Chorus in Messiah. And he wryly observed of the oratorio’s failure at the box-office: ‘The Jews will not come to it … because it is a Christian story; and the Ladies will not come because it [is] a virtuous one.’

There may be a grain of truth in Handel’s reported witticism, at least as regards Jewish audiences, hitherto a vital component of his oratorio attendees. But the crucial reason behind public indifference to Theodora was surely its reflective inwardness, rising in Parts 2 and 3 to spiritual sublimity. Of all the oratorios, none was less calculated to hit its listeners ‘on the drum of the ear’.

Thomas Morell’s immediate source for his libretto was Robert Boyle’s mawkish novella The Martyrdom of Theodora and of Didymus, set in Roman-occupied Antioch. Though no poet, Morell at least made a coherent narrative from Boyle’s sententious ramblings.

As a Church of England vicar he was keen to emphasise the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives: the Roman soldier Didymus, in love with the Christian Theodora, has secretly converted to her religion; and at the end of the story, in a passage not set by Handel, the open-minded Roman officer Septimius likewise becomes a Christian.

Judged merely by the libretto, Theodora’s piety and suffering have something almost masochistic about them. But through the beauty and unsentimental tenderness of Handel’s music she becomes a poignant, vulnerably human figure. In the composer’s vision her martyrdom is both glorious and suffused with a sense of agonised loss. Theodora’s solos – most poignantly her prison air ‘With darkness deep’ – and two duets with Didymus give the oratorio its essential tragic tinta. Her one aria in the major key, the serene ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’, became a Victorian parlour favourite.

While Theodora dominates the oratorio, each of the other characters is drawn with an individuality that, again, goes far beyond Morell’s libretto. At the one extreme is the unbending Roman governor Valens, not a bloodthirsty monster but a man who does things by the book and is always in a hurry. His solos are marked by rapid tempos and terse, impatient phrases. Septimius, the ‘good’ Roman who becomes ever more sympathetic to the Christian cause, sings the most ornate and suavely lyrical music in the oratorio. The airs for Theodora’s lover Didymus, written for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, have a gentle rapture that complements the more searching music for the heroine.

Didymus’s ethereal nature is epitomised by the exquisitely chaste ‘Sweet Rose and Lily’, sung over the sleeping Theodora, and the rarefied air that flowers into a duet just before the final martyrdom. This glowing spirituality also suffuses the magnificent airs Handel wrote for Theodora’s fellow-Christian and confidante Irene, a milk-and-water figure in the libretto who is transfigured by the warmth and strength of her music.

As in several of his earlier oratorios, Handel graphically characterises opposing cultures in the choruses. Typically, the Romans come across not as bloodthirsty sadists but as unabashed sensualists, singing in catchy dance rhythms and simple textures. The Christian choruses, gravely or radiantly contrapuntal, share the spirituality of Theodora’s music; and each of the three parts ends with a sublime choral climax. The beautiful contrapuntal duet between Didymus and Theodora near the end of Part 2 fuses human tragedy with a transfigured ecstasy. But Handel crowns even this duet with the chorus he valued above all others, ‘He saw the lovely youth’. Beginning as a dirge, this ends with a fugal movement of chastened joy depicting Christ’s raising of the widow’s dead son in St Luke’s Gospel.

The two final numbers form a true apotheosis: the duet that grows out of Didymus’s air, music of unearthly purity tinged with the ache of what might have been; and the chorus, ‘O Love divine’. Morell’s words here might have suggested an exultant ending. But Handel’s valedictory music, part-prayer, part-lullaby (reworked from an air in Hercules), leaves us in no doubt that he viewed the fate of Theodora and Didymus as essentially tragic. We know little about Handel’s personal faith. But it is hard to deny that this chorus conveys an intense religious experience, and that for once Handel and Bach – in so many ways musical antipodes – meet here on common ground.

© Richard Wigmore

Programme and performers

George Frideric Handel Theodora


Jonathan Cohen
Louise Alder Theodora
Tim Mead Didymus
Anna Stéphany Irene
Stuart Jackson Septimius
Adam Plachetka Valens


Artist biographies