Handel’s penultimate oratorio, Theodora, was a failure in his own time. Until relatively recently it remained a rarity, but over the last few years it has gradually come to be recognised as a masterpiece, although quite different in mood and treatment from most of his more familiar oratorios. In their note on the work in the booklet here, Ruth Smith – who has cast so much light on these works and their background lately – and Paul McCreesh draw attention to the then newish concept of the heroine, in the age of sensibility, paralleling Theodora’s plight with those of the fictional heroines Clarissa and Pamela: a fascinating notion that puts Handel or at least his librettist, Morell, in the avant-garde of their time, and certainly invites one to listen to the music with a different awareness.
And this recording encourages attentive listening to the subtleties of the work, because it is done with such affection, care and refinement. There is nothing sensational about it, no singer who overwhelms you with brilliance or virtuosity. But the solo music, all of it, is finely sung. Theodora herself is taken by Susan Gritton, who has justly won golden opinions recently, and will win more here for a great deal of lovely, clear and musicianly singing, with a quiet seriousness and unaffected intensity that are ideally suited to the role. The detail – of phrasing, articulation, the placing of stresses, the degree to which notes are sustained – is impeccable. Her presence at the centre of the tragic drama elevates it as a whole. Listen to her charming singing of the siciliana ‘The pilgrim’s home’, or to the quietly rapt performance of her first air in the final act, ‘When sunk in anguish and despair’.
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: I wonder if McCreesh interprets it aright). Lastly, there is 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, largely confined to da capo sections and to the occasional appoggiatura, trill or flourish – truly ornamental, in fact. 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 a confident, precise chorus, well balanced (18.104.22.168) both in itself and in relation to the orchestra (26 strings, with oboes and bassoons at least doubled), and you have the recipe for what seems to be an outstanding reading of this noble work.
The Christie Glyndebourne version is available only on video (NVC, 2/97), and two of the three CD recordings in the catalogue are heavily and unjustifiably cut. So the only serious competitor is McGegan’s, with the admirable Lorraine Hunt in the title-role; but this new one seems to me in general more strongly cast and more natural in its direction and its pacing, and is certainly the one to choose.'