sat 02/07/2022

Theodora, Royal Opera review - God, love, sex, death - and terrorism | reviews, news & interviews

Theodora, Royal Opera review - God, love, sex, death - and terrorism

Theodora, Royal Opera review - God, love, sex, death - and terrorism

Katie Mitchell's staging of a late Handel oratorio works well, but acting trumps singing

Julia Bullock as TheodoraAll images by Camilla Greenwell

Some of Handel's late London oratorios, like the indestructible Semele, work well as fully staged operas. Others, usually the ones which swap mythology for the sacred, need dramatic help. Theodora is one of them, though Peter Sellars' now-legendary Glyndebourne production had a once-in-a-lifetime intensity. The singing if not the acting is more fitfully stunning here, but Katie Mitchell just about pulls off one of her most vivid and focused reimaginings.

This is certainly her best Handel staging to date, even if advance puffery about its extreme nature turns out to have been exaggerated. We are in the Roman embassy of a sleazy-violent diplomat – Eastern European, Russian? – moving as Chloe Lamford’s brilliantly designed sliding set does between kitchen and reception room, brothel and deep freeze. What Mitchell describes among her slightly stilted observations in the programme book as her “red intervention” is to give pious Christian virgin Theodora “agency” as part of a movement dedicated to destroying the Roman order. This works against the grain of the music at first, the initial arias of tenor Septimius, reluctant security guard, and Didymus, a convert to the cause, feeling overlong in their da capo refrains partly because everyone on stage is anxious for them to end so that the revolutionary movement can begin, and their impatience becomes ours. Then there’s the making of a bomb – now, incidentally, a Sellars trope (overextended in his production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito) – which stretches over another couple of musical numbers. Scene from Royal Opera TheodoraMitchell’s first production coup, very well executed, comes in the most heavenly aria of Act 1, perhaps of the entire oratorio, fellow Christian (here co-conspirator) Irene’s “As with rosy steps the morn”, where the plot discovery plays out in slow motion; the stylisation will spread to more of Irene’s music, a chorus and the final duet, in a long-term pay-off. Maybe it’s impossible to get the sound and focus of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s performance out of one’s head – once heard, never forgotten – but Joyce DiDonato’s vocal threading is less than grounded here. As often, DiDonato (pictured above with Bullock) is a totally committed performer, but tonally uneven – most of her other numbers are superb, especially “Lord, to thee each day and night” at the beginning of Act Three, beautifully staged as a confidence to a handful of fellow-Christians, but the last one, “New scenes of joy”, goes slightly off-centre again.

Theodora’s active good should be strong enough by itself – turning her fundamentalist actually alienates us from some of her most limpid music – and Julia Bullock could carry it whatever the direction. Vocally, as so often happens with singers in Handel, the upper register is vibrant, the middle sometimes going into a murky zone, but the casting of Bullock pays off remarkably in the last act. Scene from TheodoraJakub Józef Orliński as her lover Didymus is fair of form and face, less so of voice – plenty of clarion notes rarely extend to full phrases (I can better imagine the limpidity of Iestyn Davies or Philippe Jaroussky in the more radiant numbers). Again, though, he's brave in going all the way with what Mitchell asks of him - and yes, a shirt removal in each act is dramatically justified. Ed Lyon’s Septimius (pictured above with Orliński on the left) is the most even-toned throughout the range of the soloists, Gyula Orendt’s dangerous ambassafor the least. The Royal Opera Chorus takes aural adjustment after the slimline choral-scholar ensembles we’re used to hearing, but works well with conductor Harry Bicket, and Handel’s exquisite late writing for strings always shines out. Scene from Act 2 of Royal Opera TheodoraIt does, I think, ultimately work as drama. Mitchell is on dangerous ground in the brothel to which Theodora is committed as punishment; the two pole-dancers, starting out in spooky concordance with Theodora’s “With darkness deep”, slightly outstay their welcome (pictured above), but the risky cross-dressing in the Theodora-Didymus duet comes at the end of a nicely-focused dramatic sequence, and stops just short of silliness. The ending is, shall I just say without spoiling the shock, not the expected martyrdom, and the overall symmetries and echoes match the work of Richard Jones at his best. Mitchell has a dedicated team ready to go with her rigorous demands, and the impact has stayed with me. I hope this Theodora, like the Glyndebourne one, is preserved on film – there’s plenty worth revisiting.

The risky cross-dressing in the Theodora-Didymus duet comes at the end of a nicely-focused dramatic sequence

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Comments

The problem with Katie Mitchell is it has to be about her, and her view of life. She destroyed Lucia a few years back in the worst operatic production I have seen in 42 years of independent opera going, I normally go to everything at the ROH now it is everything bar anything touched by Ms Mitchell sounds like a good decision for the future lets hope her contract to direct opera a the ROH is now fulfilled and she will not be seen on the creative teams again. She has not got a clue about opera so lets leave her out in the cold in future.

Might I suggest it's unwise to opine about Katie Mitchell in general if you haven't seen this production and don't intend going. And whether you like it or not, I think you could at least concede that she HAS a clue about opera, especially by now.

Well I’ve seen 8 opera productions and 1 theatre production by Ms Mitchell and only 1 resonated with me her Alcina for Aix a much more successful Handel than this cold uninvolving production. Such a beautiful score totally undermined by her obsessive ideas . In the same way she wanted to put on stage in the Lucia scenes not set by Donizetti turn Pelleas and Melisandre at Aix into Melisande she seems to want to direct works which she has a problem with . Why ? I’d say her worst production was not this although I hated it but the Dido and Aeneas she did for ENO at the Young Vic. I’m an admirer of Loy, Warlikowski, Castellucci and the Alden brothers even if I don’t like everything they do so don’t accuse me of being narrow minded. I just feel she sucks the life out of everything she touches and several people I spoke to felt the same .

She has done wonderful work, e.g the two Benjamin operas and some, in my view less so, e.g. Lucia. You can argue, and I would with, whether her Christians as terrorists/revolutionaries distorts Handel's vision (and historical reality), at least for the early ones - later they were more than happy to use extreme violence to advance their cause,, but a good deal of it was pretty effective theatre. But (no spoilers) the end was utterly contrary to Handel's music. If you want to see this piece at its best watch the 1996 Glyndebourne version, arguably the best thing Peter Sellars ever did and with the great Lorraine Hunt who brings unimaginable emotion to h r great arias, which Joyce, well though she sings them (as one would expect) falls short of. Arguably Catherine Carby in the Insights programme came closer

I thought the staging of Lucia was justified as Donizetti might have been ok with it and he would not have been allowed by censorship of his time. So I don’t mind some change but removing the dual life sacrifice/ martyrdoms at the end is too much change. I hope that the arguments about staging will not overshadow the glorious singing. Good example that London can still assemble unbeatable multinational casts.

I always appreciate your reviews and take your points seriously but often find I am at odds with your assessment! I thought this was a wonderful production and performance, I saw the revival of Sellar's Theodora at Glyndebourne in 2014 and prefer this staging. Overall, it was as good as anything I've seen in 30 years of regular opera attending.

Thanks for your courtesy, David I think it was the sheer intensity of the original performers in the Sellars production which made it so remarkable - it may well not have had the same impact in 2014. I did like this staging, as I think I made clear, but the singing was not, IMO, up to the international standards promised, despite many fine moments.

Having read the controversial and highly debatable assertions of the director in the programme I was pleased that they were not as fully realised as I had feared they might be, so I enjoyed the evening very much. But in no way did the production match the original Glyndebourne Sellars performance which remains for me one of the truly great opera events. And the final twist is in my view unforgivable, as was some of the pole dancing which distracted irritatingly from the music and drama in the next room.

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