Handel’s penultimate oratorio Theodora was a flop on debut. Its 1750 premiere at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden was marred by an earthquake in London that sent wealthy patrons fleeing to the country and by a public who had no appetite for the uneasy tale of Theodora, a Christian martyr in Antioch who was executed in 304 AD along with her lover Didymus for not surrendering to Roman Paganism.

Handel’s favourite oratorio lasted three performances, librettist Thomas Morell commenting, “the second night audience was very thin indeed.”

Even Handel reportedly remarked with some disappointment, “It sounded well in a half-empty room.” Handel would have been well pleased with Sydney’s turnout for Theodora, a full house on opening night.

Samantha Clark as Theodora. Photo © Keith Saunders

Theodora was consigned to history until the 20th century when it was revived by the legendary director Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne in 1996, confronting in its ending as the protagonists strapped to gurneys await their deaths. Theodora finally returned to Covent Garden in 2022 nearly three centuries after its premiere there, with a surprise twist at the end of Katie Mitchell’s thrilling production.

Handel composed Theodora in the space of a month in mid-1749. It is a simple but profound tale, narrated in luscious choruses, arias that are both dramatic and richly melodious with clever but sombre orchestration where celebratory trumpets and timpani are used sparingly. Morell’s text inspired music of great depth and tenderness, typically Handelian in its parlance.

Following its successful 2016 City Recital Hall staging of Theodora in Sydney, directed by Lindy Hume, Pinchgut Opera has turned to Hume to realise this staging in a concert production with countertenor Christopher Lowrey returning as Didymus.

Artistic Director Erin Helyard again directs the outstanding Orchestra of the Antipodes and the equally impressive Cantillation chorus. It is a momentous return of Baroque opera to the Joan Sutherland Theatre, to the Sydney Opera House and to the repertoire of the national opera company.

Opera Australia and Pinchgut Opera’s Theodora in Concert. Photo © Keith Saunders

Sung in the original English, Theodora could well be a tale for our times with its themes of religious intolerance in a polarised society. It is not easily palatable fare. The story is discomfiting, the arias intense, quiet and introspective. In presenting Theodora as a semi-staged production, Pinchgut treads a fine path between opera and oratorio, surrendering the liberties that can be taken with a pure concert version and the luxuries available to a fully dramatised production.

The 30-strong orchestra comprising the elite of the nation’s Baroque instrumentalists are on stage with their period instruments, Helyard directing from the chamber organ. What a pleasure it is to observe the orchestra on stage and to watch the sheer physicality of the instrumentalists and the incomparable Helyard with his understated yet meticulous and well-paced leadership.

Sharing the stage on risers, is the 20-strong Cantillation chorus, acting as both devout Christians and belligerent Romans. They are musically brilliant, but inconsistently flip between being passive observers and part of the drama.

The rest of the stage is given over to the very fine cast of soloists. Singing without scores they are open to full dramatic expression. Samantha Clarke is exceptional in the title role, playing Theodora with quiet conviction. Exquisitely nuanced and beautifully controlled, she makes a seamless stylistic transition from her recent outings as a Rhinemaiden and as Violetta. Her rendition of the signature aria Angels ever bright and fair is nothing short of mesmerising.

Michael Petruccelli, David Greco, Samantha Clarke and Christopher Lowrey in Theodora in Concert. Photo © Keith Saunders

The most complex character in the ensemble is Septimius, sung by tenor Michael Petruccelli. Beautifully rounded in tone throughout his range, he ably portrays a uniformed figure conflicted by his friendship with the covertly Christian Didymus, and his loyalty to his Roman President, Valens, who demands the deaths of Theodora and Didymus. Petruccelli channels Septimius’ compassion, anguish and utter mystification at the devoutness of the Christians in Descend kind pity, with its downward sweeping melody painting the sentiments of the aria. Compassion turns to rage soon after with the threatening Dread the fruits of Christian folly.

Bass David Greco sings a malevolent Valens with a touch of depravity; Helen Sherman is a tender Irene, captivating with her signature aria As with rosy steps the morn. Christopher Lowrey (Didymus) delivers Handel’s melismatic lines with consummate ease. His duet with Clarke, To thee, thou glorious son of worth, is a highlight. Louis Hurley as the Messenger rounds out the solo ensemble. Minimal props, costumes and lighting by Jason Morphett add to the detail.

It is a big step that the ensemble has made from recital hall to opera theatre and there were some teething problems in the presentation. This was most evident in moments when the more-lightly voiced soloists needed to project their sound further. This is but a beginning. Baroque is back in the Sydney Opera House. Hopefully this is a harbinger of a long and regular collaboration between Opera Australia and Pinchgut Opera in returning Baroque opera to the main stage.

Theodora in Concert is performed in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 8–9 February.

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