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Briefly Noted: 'Theodora' Minus Most of the Nonsense

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Handel, Theodora, L. Hunt, D. Upshaw, D. Daniels, R. Croft, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, W. Christie

(released on May 29, 2012)
GFOCD 014-96 | 3h20
We have already reviewed the DVD of this production of Handel's Theodora, made at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1996. The DVD is important mostly as a testament to the searing stage presence of Lorraine Hunt (later, Lieberson), as Irene, the assistant to Theodora, a martyred leader of the Christian community during the persecution of Diocletian. The principal benefit of having only the audio in this CD version is to avoid the rather absurd staging directed by Peter Sellars (again, see my review for more on that), which among other things was the occasion of William Christie's non-fatal heart attack, provoked according to Christie, by Sellars, with whom he quarreled on this production. In a point quite relevant to the Sellars staging, scholar Stanley Sadie, in a savant booklet essay, regards it as "improbable" that Handel in any way envisaged, even "in some ideal sense," a staged performance of this or any of his oratorios. Sadie also points out that several of the numbers in Theodora are Handel's reworkings of music originally composed by Giovanni Clari (1677-1754).

In any case, it is the music that makes this performance so special -- the singing of a fine cast and the sound of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Christie and featuring Harry Bicket at the harpsichord. The tracks are taken from a range of live recordings made over the course of the run, chosen presumably as the best exemplars of each piece. The only regret is the live performance sounds, including the whooping and hollering of the chorus in the crowd scenes and the laughter of the audience (a sure indictment of the Sellars staging -- laughter?). In spite of the fine contributions from all the principal singers -- Hunt, Dawn Upshaw, David Daniels, and Richard Croft -- this live recording is not to be preferred over the leaders in the field. William Christie went on to record this most admirable of Handel's oratorios a few years later, with his own ensemble, Les Arts Florissants (Erato), in the same year that Paul McCreesh made an excellent recording with the Gabriel Consort (Archiv).

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