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"Opera" on DVD: Theodora

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Handel, Theodora, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, David Daniels, directed by Peter Sellars, Glyndebourne Opera, William Christie (released on June 29, 2004)
Handel's oratorio Theodora (1750, HWV 68) is set during the persecution of Diocletian. To honor the emperor's birthday, the President of Antioch, Valens, orders the universal acceptance of the rites in honor of Jove, knowing that the local Christians will not accept. In this infamous staged production from Glyndebourne in 1996, director Peter Sellars cast the Romans as a modern imperialist nation -- you know who! -- with Valens (the booming Frode Olsen) as a business-suited American president, with his "crowd of heathens" as a band of ugly Americans holding cans of soda, his soldiers Septimius (the sweet tenor Richard Croft) and Didymus (countertenor David Daniels) and their legion as orange-jumpsuited paratroopers.

The Christians, costumed in either all black or all white, are less obviously characterized. In her first appearance, the noble Theodora (a radiant Dawn Upshaw) hands her earrings and pearl necklace to her assistant, Irene (a truly incendiary Lorraine Hunt, before her marriage to Peter Lieberson), who shows the jewels around the group as the "vain pomp of proud prosperity." So, the Christians are people who have rejected the money-worshipping ways of the imperialist power, and the other Christians then come forward to throw their money (dollars, of course) on the bonfire of vanities. Of course, a simple rejection of money does not really explain why or how Irene convinces her confreres to face death at the hands of the imperialists, or why the imperialists want to kill those who simply don't want anything to do with their money (or force Theodora into sexual slavery just for throwing away her pearls). Basically, the story has to be about religious persecution or it does not make much sense.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
Lord, to Thee each night and day,
Strong in hope, we sing and pray.

Words by Thomas Morell, set in Handel's Theodora
For the sound, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's recording of the Irene arias on her 2004 Handel CD is much better, but it is good to have this DVD as a document of her searing stage presence. (Alex Ross described it quite well in his September remembrance of LHL in The New Yorker.) No one on the stage is as convincing: the viewer can have no doubt of the sincerity of Irene's faith, that it permeates every fiber of her body. To her credit it even transcends the Sellars rewrite of the storyline. When she sings those lines at the opening of the third act (quoted beneath her picture here), it is not merely a repudiation of wealth that burns in her eyes but fervent belief in the love of God. In the third act's third scene ("New scenes of joy come crowding on"), Irene's centrality to this reading of the oratorio becomes clear. She travels mystically into the final setting, with President Valens seated in judgment. LHL places her hands on the faces of her enemies, in a moment of benediction, as bright light wells up from the back of the stage like the golden background of an icon.

It is not that I did not enjoy this remarkable staging (although I could have done without all the high-school show choir hand movements). The enthusiasm Sellars brings to the musicians usually makes their performance warm and exciting, and it is no different here. However, it is really the music that makes the magic happen. William Christie leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (with Harry Bicket at the harpsichord) in a lovely performance, with the sound captured quite well. The viewing time is over three hours, even though Sellars cut out a few lines of recitative here and there (it includes the material added by Handel for the 1755 revival). The singing from all the soloists and the chorus make this a must-see.

Kultur D2099

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