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Ron Salemi
Fanfare, November 2011

HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Staged Version) (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 705708
HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 705804

Ivor Bolton conducts a good performance. Half of the movements in Theodora are marked largo or larghetto. Bolton’s lively but not overly fast tempos keep things moving while being true to Handel’s drama. Chorus and orchestra are very good. And the cast is excellent, strong in all department…

James Reel
Fanfare, November 2011

HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Staged Version) (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 705708
HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 705804

…performances are excellent—and…full of emotional integrity…this Theodora is definitely worth acquiring…

James Inverne
Gramophone, October 2011

HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Staged Version) (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 705708
HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 705804

Glyndebourne staging of Theodora has long held sway for me, so it’s good to welcome a strong newcomer from Salzburg.

Christoph Loy, one of the most interesting directors around at the moment, stages the action in a concert setting. Paradoxical though that may sound, it works brilliantly, throwing the emphasis on to the music as action in itself. Christine Schäfer leads a fine line-up.

David Vickers
Gramophone, October 2011

HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Staged Version) (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 705708
HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 705804

The 2009 Salzburg production of Handel’s penultimate masterpiece Theodora—his only English oratorio set in early Christian times—is much more rewarding. Christof Loy eschews stage scenery in favour of a moodily lit backdrop of the festival hall’s massive pipe organ and props of just sparse wooden chairs (which are used or cleared smoothly by soloists and the Salzburg Bach Choir as the scenes require). The action is intensely dramatic but tends to shy away from narrative staging—in some respects the result is like a semi-staged concert with intense acting and a mobile chorus.

Christine Schäfer adopts a fragile demeanour as Theodora and her English pronunciation isn’t bad. Bejun Mehta is less vocally immaculate here than in Belshazzar: his spirited performance of Didymus’s heroic arias in Act 1 and the two sublime duets are enjoyable but I didn’t enjoy his vibrato and peculiar closed-mouth treatment of vowels in “Deeds of kindness” as much as the enthusiastic Salzburg audience. Joseph Kaiser gives an outstanding vocal and dramatic performance as the beleaguered Roman guard Septimius: “Descend kind pity” is sung beautifully and his emotive acting throughout is a key part of the production’s success—at the final tragic scene the camerawork shows him to be genuinely in tears as his friends are martyred. The Salzburg Bach Choir manages the impressive feat of moving around a lot while remaining vocally balanced and blended (and their English is flawless). The insertion of the Organ Concerto in G minor (HWV310) partway through Act 3 is odd (Handel performed it between the parts of Theodora but not during the drama). The musical provision from the classy team of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Ivor Bolton is exemplary at letting Handel do the talking.

Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, July 2011

HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Staged Version) (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 705708
HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora (Salzburg Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 705804

Before setting out to review this performance my first designated task was to compare the quality of the DVD with that of the Blu Ray version, in both vision and sound. For the picture comparison I used my Panasonic equipment including a flat screen TX-L series LCD/LED television, a DMP-BD45 Blue Ray Player and a DMR-EX75EB DVD recorder-player. The sound tests involved assessing the stereo play-back with amplification provided by a Studer-Revox B250-S amplifier driving two large KEF R105 three way Reference speakers.

The DVD versions of this HD-filmed performance are contained on two discs, whilst the Blu Ray is fitted onto one. With a few seconds to allow switching to take place I ran the two versions alternately so as to hear and see direct comparison of scenes and arias. Sonically I could discern no difference between them. However, visually the Blue Ray was markedly superior in sharpness and depth of tone. As a subjective neo-quantitative assessment I would put the superiority at around 10 per cent. I went on to try the more difficult task of comparing the DVD and Blu Ray discs in the DMP-BD45 Blu Ray Player with its up-scaling facility. This was more of a challenge because of the time delay and visual memory limitations before comparing scenes. What I can say is that with this quality of HD filming, the up-scaling allowed for a significant improvement in picture quality compared with playing the disc in the simple DVD recorder/player. Again, allowing for subjectivity of assessment, I would say the difference was only around 5 percent. With retail price differences between the formats of around 20 percent in retail shops—less via the internet—it is not a case of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware), but rather the limitations of ones budget. If you have a player and can afford the price difference then go for it in Blu Ray (Editor’s note: at time of publishing, AmazonUK were offering the Blu-ray version significantly cheaper than the DVD).

Theodora was written as an oratorio not an opera. It was his penultimate oratorio and only the composer’s third after La Resurrezione (1708) and Messiah (1741) to have a specifically Christian subject, rather than merely a Biblical one. Handel based it on The Martyrdom of Theodora and of Didymus by Robert Boyle with the libretto set by Thomas Morell. Although he began work on the score in June 1749, it was not until 16 March 1750 that it finally received its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. It was not a success and was only was performed three more times during its composer’s lifetime.

This performance was the opening production of the 2009 Salzburg Festival. As such it was the Festival’s main contribution to events marking the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death. The production finds stage director Christof Loy in minimalist mode. The reference to sets and costumes can also be taken with more than a pinch of salt. The large Grosses Festspielhaus stage is decorated only with simple school-type chairs with the large organ pipes as a backdrop. ‘Costume’ is a misnomer as dress is as one would expect in a concert performance except that Theodora changes her dress from white to red between parts one and two, possibly symbolic as to the loss of her precious virginity. The chorus and soloists move the chairs and themselves to illuminate the proceedings. The upshot is that the solo singers and chorus have to convey in facial and body language and behaviour the words they are singing.

That the story is conveyed successfully owes much to the simplicity of the direction and the acting of the solo singers in particular. Outstanding in this respect is Johannes Martin Kränzle as Valens, President of Antioch. His rock-like security of tone, facial expressions and commitment in the opening scene, and later, are a tower of strength. As Didymus the young convert to Christianity in love with Theodora, the counter-tenor Bejun Mehta has to overcome an unusual appearance with his shaven head and large eyes. That he does so, along with the burden of the largest solo part, and creates a character through his singing in particular, is a significant achievement. At no stage does he force his tone nor does his voice weaken; a formidably sung and acted realisation. As his friend Septimius, Joseph Kaiser is supportive in his acting and sings with pleasingly clear phrasing. As Theodora’s friend Irene, Bernarda Fink brings opulent vocal richness and variety of tone as well as committed and involved acting to her role delivered in an ideally understated manner. Ryland Davies, looking his age somewhat, knows how to sing this music as to the manner born in the role of Messenger.

The role of Theodora, virgin extraordinaire, is a difficult one to act as distinct from sing. Christine Schäfer’s accented English is a disadvantage to her expression, as is an occasional thinness of tone. That she overcomes these weaknesses to portray Theodora’s love, plight and ultimate sacrifice is to hail her professionalism. Sitting, knees tight close together in the opening scene as Valens nudges, eyes her and later generally rages (CH.6) calls for silent acting of a high order. Singing poignantly alongside the Didymus of Bejun Mehta in the final duet of martyrdom, Streams of pleasure, (CH.42 on Blu Ray and DVD 2 CH.40) finds her at her poignant best.

The chorus contribution is formidable in both singing and acting, whether being involved intimately in the drama or as chair carriers. Their articulation and intonation is first class. With this class of choral singing it is no wonder that Handel suggested, as the booklet tells, that the chorus that ends Part 2, He saw the lovely youth was far superior to the Hallelujah chorus from Messiah (CH. 52 on Blu Ray and DVD 2 CH.26) albeit that I would disagree. Along with their chorus-master their achievement owes much to conductor Ivor Bolton who brings out the richness of the score whilst also supporting his soloists. Part 3 includes an organ intermission in the form of the Concerto in G Minor op 7 no 5. HMW 310 played as Valens returns to confront Didymus, Irene and Theodora.

The video director avoids showing too much of the vast Grosses Festspielhaus with a well balanced mix of close-ups and mid-range camera work.

Patrick Mack
Parterre Box, May 2011

This mostly wonderful performance of Handel’s Theodora opened the 2009 Salzburg Festival in honor of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. Written at the beginning of the last decade of the composer’s life, it was a work that he held in very high regard even though he knew its subject matter would not excite.

Only performed three times before his death, it seems a singularly excellent choice to mark his passing since its music and libretto are of a most solemn nature. Its relative neglect would appear to be unjust and hopefully this DVD will bring its virtues to a wider audience.

The story is set in Antioch in the 3rd century A.D. and concerns the barbarous ruler, Valens, and his wish that all his subjects worship his god Jupiter. This would appear to involve quite a bit of Bacchanalian frolicking and a general lack of any kind of moral decorum. The chaste Theodora is a Christian noblewoman who has no intention of compromising herself regardless of the quality of the grape. So, we have a pig and a prig.

Add to this a young Roman officer, Didymus, whose love for Theodora is so great that he converts to Christianity in order to spare her life and eventually joins her in martyrdom. The only two other characters are Septimius, another Roman soldier, and Irene, a simple Christian woman and friend to our heroine. They both act as sounding boards to the main characters and comment on the action to very telling effect, at times.

So, it is a very simple story and the characters are simply presented as they are. No sort of background or development is offered or required. The events are set in motion at the rise of the curtain and with only one diversion it finishes after 3 acts, each lasting just an hour. This is a more mature Handel, missing the flash and glamour of Alcina or Giulio Cesare. Da capo repeats are lightly decorated but, the somber tone of much of the music really doesn’t lend itself to fireworks and display. We are left with a much leaner, and certainly more dramatic, experience.

The production is directed by Christof Loy, perhaps most notorious as the fellow whose insistence on Ariadne’s little black dress in his production at Covent Garden resulted in Deborah Voigt’s dismissal and her mad dash to the gastric bypass clinic. I shall not hold it against him. His production is spare to the extreme and in the liner notes he refers to wanting it to appear like an art installation. In this he succeeds. For the mostly barren stage is only backed by an enormous construct of organ pipes partially swathed in muslin for artistic effect and a large cluster of slightly moderne, wooden chairs. It’s almost as if we are at a rehearsal space for a dry run of a production where the director has asked his cast to “get a feel” for the play.

It slowly becomes apparent that what we are watching is a very carefully crafted staging and that Mr. Loy has put a great deal of thought into how best to present this very austere work to its best and most emotionally moving effect. A single chair on its side represents a prison cell in act two and the finale is particularly striking in it’s simple execution, no pun intended. The soloists are dressed in evening clothes with the chorus in business attire. All black, save our heroine who in the first act is in a simple white dress. After being consigned to life as a prostitute in the second act she appears in red; this is the dress she gives to Didymus to impersonate her while she make her escape while wearing his tuxedo for the remainder of the action.

This last half of the second act is the musical glory of the performance and this work. First the duet of Theodora and Didymus as he changes places, and clothes, with her to free her from prison, “To thee, thou glorious son of worth,” and then the closing chorus, “He saw the lovely youth” which Handel himself thought was “far beyond’ his own “Hallelujah.”

The star of this performance is the Bach Choir of Salzburg. I was constantly astonished at their clarity of word and intonation from this 40-member group in what can only be a foreign language to most of them. The fact that they manage to blend so well while scattered, or even worse, lined up in single file across the vast stage of the Festspeilhaus is a testament to their professionalism. Despite my never having been a big fan of Handel, let alone his choral writing, by the second act I was actually anticipating the choruses next contribution and enjoying it tremendously.

It’s nice to see Ryland Davies as the Messenger, even if his part is small, he adds a bit of gravitas to the proceedings. Joseph Kaiser sings the tenor role of Septimius bravely. His earnest “approxamatura” in his second aria, “Dread the fruits of Christian folly” doesn’t fool the Salzburg audience and he is rewarded with silence at its conclusion. His solid singing does gain in strength as the opera progresses and he makes a very good impression by evenings’ end—sixteenth notes be damned, or in this case, “damn’d.”

Bernarda Fink as Irene has some magnificent contributions here, ‘”Defend her, Heav’n” being the highlight. Her slightly plummy mezzo is a perfect weight for Handel and her English does not betray her Argentinean heritage. Bass Johannes Martin Kranzle is the ruler Valens and he is a fine actor and instantly recognizable as a boorish buffoon who’s his own self absorption makes him a danger to his people. His voice is fluid and his passagework very clean. In the finale of act three his exit, having realized that his lack of tolerance has brought about the death of two people far better than he, is a study in immaturity.

I have never been charmed by countertenors and would prefer a mezzo in any of these old castrato parts. Bejun Mehta, however, goes from strength to strength is this performance. In “Kind heav’n, if virtue be thy care,” the start of his da capo repeat is stunning and latter in the third act when he dips into his lowest register during variants it’s a knockout. He’s also brave enough to trill when it’s required, though the success of the trill depends upon the area of his voice he’s in at the time. (Lower seems better.) He does manage to carry off being garbed as a woman in the last act (that little red dress) which is to his credit.

Christine Schäfer has grown enormously as an artist since I saw a video of her Covent Garden Gilda in 2002 and her singing, although slightly accented at times, is excellent. Her tone has remained clean and gained body and volume. Theodora is the kind of role that benefits from a career singing Mozart and lied . She rings out over the orchestra to real dramatic effect in the last act and also sounds, uncannily at times, like Julia Varady. From all the ruddy complexions on display I don’t think anyone in this production was allowed make-up beyond a little mascara and some lipstick and at the last when she’s dressed as a man it works even further to her advantage as an actress.

The Baroque Orchestra of Freiburg offer a supple rendering of the score under Ivor Bolton. Placed on the highest possible level of the orchestra platform to ensure everyone stays together the neck of the double bass actually pops out over the lip of the stage. It allows Bolton to keep everyone together in the vast spaces of the Festspeilhaus and you can truly feel him supporting the singers, most especially in their da capo sections. They used exactly the same number of players that the score indicates so, no doubling or filling out for the larger theater and you can actually sense the audience listening intently.

Handel’s Organ Concerto in G-minor is inserted into the beginning of Act three to provide Theodora a pantomime to show her enjoying her new man-garb in society. First aping the boorish behavior of Valens at the opera’s start it then turns quickly menacing and finally leads to her capture. An inspired idea and another excellent example of the power and economy of this staging.

The blurb on the packaging calls the video director, Hannes Rossacher, “world-renowned and though I certainly can’t dispute that characterization, I can’t see anything individual about his contribution either. The DVD video picture was mastered almost too sharp and there was some phasing from the vertical lines of the organ pipes at the back of the stage that required adjusting down a bit. Sound was superb. This is also released in Blu-Ray and although I’m a big fan of the format I can’t imagine it bettering any of the experience in this case.

For Handel fans this is an excellent addition to your library. For anyone interested in experiencing Handel at his mature genius it holds many rewards.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group