Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

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…

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.

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.

Lawrence Devoe, July 2011

The Performance

Georg Frideric Handel has always loomed large in the world of classical music. Theodora was one of his last oratorios, an opera-like format featuring soloists, chorus, and orchestra but lacking opera’s formal dramatic interaction between the characters. The concept of staging Theodora as a drama by German director Christof Loy at the 2009 Salzburg Festival is not novel but greatly enhances the impact of this tragedy for the audience.

The story of Theodora, a 3rd Century A.D. Christian martyr, is relatively straight forward as plots go. Theodora (soprano Christine Schaefer) and her Christian-convert Roman lover Didymus (counter-tenor Bejun Mehta) run afoul of Valens, the Roman president of Antioch (bass Johannes Martin Kraenzle) who insists that all citizens pay homage to the Roman deities. Theodora and her companion Irene (mezzo-soprano Bernada Fink) are arrested during worship by Roman officer, Septimus (tenor Joseph Kaiser). Theodora is forced into prostitution. With the help of Didymus, Theodora escapes from the brothel and returns to her Christian community. However, the freedom of the lovers is short-lived as they are eventually captured and sentenced to death by Valens. Like most of Handel’s many oratorios, Theodora’s English libretto should make it more accessible to American viewers.

Video Quality

Christof Loy’s productions, like his 2009 realization of Alban Berg’s Lulu, frequently feature minimalist sets. The stark backdrop of suspended organ pipes and rows of chairs enable freedom of stage action without the boundaries of conventional staging. The oratorio touch here is garbing the singers in formal wear appropriate to a conventional concert performance. The set and singers’ wardrobes are quite dark, adding to the somber atmosphere originally intended by Handel and his librettist. The “action” is done rather cleverly, and if not what one would get in a standard opera seria, works well for this production. The videographers move freely among the singers and their supporting choristers to create a sense of real stage movement. There are many evocative close ups with excellent detail underscoring the intimate nature of this piece. The brothel scene leaves little to the imagination even without the sexual props. Okay, not everything works as well, like the scene where Theodora and Didymus change clothes, shades of “Bosom Buddies!” Credit should be given to video director Hannes Rossacher for adding excitement to what might have been a very static performance.

Audio Quality

The period-sized Freiburger Barockorchester in the pit fits the work on stage to a tee. Ivor Bolton leads his forces impeccably and the instrumental voices sing as beautifully like their vocal counterparts. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio recording captures the fabulous acoustics of the Salzburg Grosses Festspielhaus, giving listeners a good taste of what being there is like. There is much gorgeous music here and the magnificent bunch of soloists are extremely well recorded. For those not accustomed to the male counter-tenor voice, Bejun Mehta brings a humanity to this unusual fach that must be heard to be believed.Not all of the principals are native English speakers, but the diction and clarity of all concerned is exemplary, making subtitles unnecessary. Surround channels are limited to providing some hall ambience.

Supplemental Materials

There are no supplemental materials. As with any new concept of a traditional work, it is unfortunate that viewers do not get the opportunity to visit with this stellar cast or director Loy.

The Definitive Word


Even if this were not the lone Blu-ray offering of Theodora, it is unlikely that another would supplant this performance’s video and sound recording. Drama, not usually associated with the oratorio musical form, is presented in abundance. Christof Loy’s realization adds action to what would have otherwise been a stand-and-deliver piece. Yes, the stage is mostly bare, the backdrop is usually dark, and the main props are chairs but there is obvious action equivalent to that of a discretely staged performance like recent “concert” versions of Les Miserables or Sweeney Todd. Handel’s vocal works rise or fall on the quality of the singers. I am delighted to report that this Theodora offers an embarrassment of vocal riches. There is also luxury casting in having evergreen British tenor Ryland Davies in the minor role of the Messenger. Baroque specialist, conductor Ivor Bolton, brings spirit to the proceedings and keeps the dramatic pulse ticking. Clocking in at just over 3 hours, including a 14-minute organ concerto in the third act, Theodora does not play as a long work. As far as I am concerned, this is a case of all the stars aligning and yielding a superb performance in both sight and sound.

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.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group