Salzburg celebrates Handel year with new 'Theodora'

10th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

"Theodora" is a pretty sombre affair, a four-hour tale of martyrdom in which the eponymous heroine, a Christian virgin, chooses to be put to death rather than raped and imprisoned as a sex slave as punishment for refusing to worship heathen Roman gods.

Salzburg -- This year may the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel but his "Theodora" seems to be a bit of an odd choice for the Salzburg Festival, that ultra-swank, ultra-exclusive summer festival of high-end entertainment.

It's not an opera after all, but an oratorio, ie. a contemplative work for our moral and religious edification.

It was Handel's penultimate work in that particular genre (he wrote 17 oratorios in all) and he composed it in 1749, just 10 years before he died, aged 74.

"Theodora" is a pretty sombre affair, a four-hour tale of martyrdom in which the eponymous heroine, a Christian virgin, chooses to be put to death rather than raped and imprisoned as a sex slave as punishment for refusing to worship heathen Roman gods.

Furthermore, the work is scored for a very modest-sized orchestra of strings, oboes and bassoons -- played here by the excellent period-instrument ensemble, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.

So, it verges on the perverse for German director Christof Loy to stage it in Salzburg's huge Grosses Festspielhaus stage, the operatic equivalent of an IMAX cinema.

But in an accompanying programme note, Loy insists that the choice of location was very deliberate, the hangar-like dimensions of the auditorium, "the seemingly endless space, allowing small cells of intimacy to be built up."

In larger spaces, Loy says, "much greater tensions can be created to highlight just how fragile such intimacy is."

Furthermore, the director does not attempt to turn it into an opera at all, but offers a sort of scenic action, a series of understated, but carefully choreographed tableaux that act as a commentary on the narrative.

The set, by German designer Annette Kurz, is as austere as it is stunning: a vast church organ that perfectly encapsulates both the baroque and sacred atmosphere of the work.

The costumes, by Ursula Renzenbrink, are restricted to the dark suits and gowns of modern concert performances. Only Theodora stands out, appearing first in virginal white and then in red, reflecting her tortuous spiritual journey.

As the heroine, German soprano Christine Schaefer may not be to everyone's taste in this baroque repertoire. But she can shade her silvery voice with a darker and more fiery sheen if she needs to and perfectly encapsulates Theodora's combination of fragility and defiance.

In the role of Didymus, US countertenor Bejun Mehta has a refined, luminous finish to his voice and Argentinian mezzo Bernarda Fink is sheer luxury casting as Irene.

Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser was a vocally lithe and fiery Septimius and German baritone Johannes Martin Kraenzle convincingly vindictive as Valens.

In an ingenious touch, Loy inserts one of Handel's organ concertos into the middle of Act III, bringing to life the oversized organ on stage and serving to sustain tensions just ahead of the final scene. The solo part was taken by James McVinnie, assistant organist in Westminister Abbey.

The chorus was the excellent Salzburg Bachchor and in the pit, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra played radiantly under British early music specialist Ivor Bolton.

AFP/Expatica

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