The Gramophone Choice
Susan Gritton sop Susan Bickley mez Robin Blaze counterten Paul Agnew, Angus Smith tens Neal Davies bass Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh
Archiv 469 061-2AH3 (3h 4' · DDD · T) Buy from Amazon
Theodora, Handel’s penultimate oratorio, was a failure in his own time. Until relatively recently it remained a rarity, but lately it has come to be recognised as a masterpiece, although quite different in mood and treatment from most of his more familiar oratorios. This recording encourages attentive listening to its subtleties, because it’s done with such affection, care and refinement. There’s nothing sensational about it, no singer who overwhelms you with brilliance or virtuosity. But all the solo music is finely sung. Theodora herself is taken by Susan Gritton, who’s won golden opinions for a great deal of lovely, clear and musicianly singing, with a quiet seriousness and unaffected intensity that are ideally suited to the role. Her presence at the centre of the tragic drama elevates it as a whole.
Irene, her fellow Christian, is sung with scarcely less distinction by Susan Bickley, coolly expressive in most of her music, more passionate in ‘Defend her Heaven’ in Act 2, a shapely performance with subtleties of timing. Didymus, originally a castrato role (very rare in oratorios), is sung by Robin Blaze, whose focused, even-toned countertenor – not a hint of the traditional hoot – serves well: this is fluent singing, with no great depth of tone, but very steady and controlled, with the detail precisely placed. As Septimius, Paul Agnew is in good voice, firm and full in tone, phrasing the music elegantly (although the Act 3 air is unconvincing, too bouncy and cheerful for the situation). Lastly, there’s Neal Davies as the Roman ruler, Valens, whose excellent singing makes as persuasive a case as can be imagined for torturing Christians – his is a pleasantly grainy voice, with considerable warmth and fullness of tone, well suited to a figure representing authority, and he despatches the divisions with assurance.
Ornamentation is appropriate and tasteful, and McCreesh takes the recitative at a natural and relaxed pace. His main contribution, however, is in the well-sprung rhythms he draws from his Gabrieli singers and players, in the way he allows the lines to breathe, and in the sense of purpose and direction he imparts to the bass-line. Add to this a keen sense of the right pace for each number, and you’ve the recipe for an outstanding reading of this noble work.
Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt sops David Daniels counterten Richard Croft ten Frode Olsen bass Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / William Christie
Stage and video director Peter Sellars
Warner Music Vision/NVC Arts DVD 0630 15481-2
(3h 27’ · NTSC · 4:3 · 2.0 · 2-6). Recorded live at Glyndebourne Opera House, 1996. Buy from Amazon
What a paradox it is that one of the great opera productions of our time should be of a work not intended for the stage. If you’re repelled by the thought of Roman soldiers in US army uniforms and a Roman governor glad-handing like a US president, then think again. The score is of a matchless beauty, the production riveting, the individual performances flawless. Unmissable.