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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora [Oratorio] (Wieland, Schmid, Vitzthum, Schoch, Mertens, Junge Kantorei, Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra, J.C. Martini)
Set in a time of ancient Rome’s persecution of the Christians, Handel’s late masterpiece Theodora tells of the tragic martyrdom of the heroine and her lover Didymus. The challenging nature of the libretto with its religious conflict, cruelty, self-sacrifice and brothel scene was discomforting for contemporary audiences, and despite Handel’s magnificent music the oratorio was his least successful. This is part of a series of Handel oratorios from Martini and Junge Kantorei.
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Theodora, An Oratorio, HWV 68
Libretto by Thomas Morell (1703–1784) after the anonymously published novel
The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus by Robert Boyle (1627–1691)
Theodora - Christina Wieland, soprano
Irene - Diana Schmid, mezzo-soprano
Didymus - Franz Vitzthum, countertenor
Septimius - Knut Schoch, tenor
Valens - Klaus Mertens, bass-baritone
The libretto of the oratorio Theodora was written by the Anglican cleric and philologist the Reverend Dr Thomas Morell, taking as his model the tale by Robert Boyle, published anonymously in 1687, Love and Religion demonstrated in the Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus. This tale, in turn, was based on a legend of martyrs in the fourth century and its literary adaptations in the seventeenth century by, among others, Pierre Corneille.
George Frideric Handel set the libretto in just four weeks. In the autograph it is shown that the first act was started on 28 June 1749 and the first part finished on 11 July, with the end of the second act. The third act was finished on 31 July. This short space of time is still more astonishing when we see that in the spring of 1749, Handel, now 64 years old, directed first performances of the oratorios Susanna and Solomon, the ‘Anthem on the Peace’ How beautiful are the feet for the celebration of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, the so-called ‘Caroline’ Te Deum, the Music for the Royal Fireworks in Green Park and on 27 May, the first benefit concert for the Foundling Hospital, with, among other works, the anthem composed for the Foundling Hospital, Blessed are they that consider the poor. In spite of all this, in the early summer of the same year he wrote the oratorio Theodora, a true masterpiece.
The first performance of Theodora was given on 16 March 1750 in the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. There followed two further performances on 21 and 23 March. Then, in spite of the fact that it was the only new work of the season, Theodora was laid aside, as it had found only small audiences. This evident reluctance of the London public is all the more astonishing, as this oratorio was a particular favourite with Handel. The librettist Thomas Morell in a letter to the printer and antiquary John Nichols, wrote as follows: The 2nd night of Theodora was very thin indeed, tho’ the Princess Amelia was there. I guess’d it a losing night, so did not go to Mr Handell as usual; but seeing him smile, I ventur’d, when, ‘Will you be there next Friday night,’ says he, ‘and I will play it to you?’ I told him I had just seen Sir T. Hankey, ‘and he desired me to tell you, that if you would have it again, he would engage for all the Boxes.’ ‘He is a Fool; the Jews will not come to it (as to Judas) because it is a Christian story; and the Ladies will not come, because it [is] a virtuous one.’ Something of the attitude of the London audience is considered below, in the article Theodora and the London Public.
A further performance in 1755 had no public success, although the composer hoped to please public taste by various abridgements and changes. A performance planned for 1759, for which the score was again altered, in the end did not take place.
My score is based on the original score and the 1860 Chrysander edition for the German Handel Society. A number of changes were made in the conductor’s score of Theodora during its performance history, alterations precisely noted in the recent Halle Edition. With the help of this edition I have revised the recitatives, in order to clarify the narrative.
Joachim Carlos Martini
Scene 1: Valens, the Roman governor of the Province of Syria, proclaims throughout Antioch a feast and sacrifice to Jupiter to celebrate the birthday of the Emperor Diocletian. Should any of his subjects, on any ground whatsoever, refuse to share in these rites, they are to be persecuted with racks, gibbet, sword and fire. Septimius, a loyal follower of Valens, is entrusted with the task of seeing that this order is obeyed.
Didymus, a good friend of Septimius, dares to oppose the view of Valens that recognition of the divine imperial power and loyalty to the Roman state could only be be shown through prayers of thanks and offerings to Jupiter, since there are many whose consciences will not allow them to join in these rites. Valens, nevertheless, sticks to his view, threatening any who refuse to obey. His followers rejoice.
Scene 2: Didymus tells Septimius that persecution is wrong in any attempt to compel belief. Septimius, although still an adherent of the old religion, feels sympathy but must obey the Roman governor.
Scene 3: Theodora, with Irene and a group of Christians, enters. She bids the world farewell, and Irene stresses the vanity of human passions and of prosperity, while true happiness is to be found in pure religion.
Scene 4: A messenger enters, urging the Christians to fly, but Irene declares that the Lord’s protection is everywhere, sentiments endorsed by the Christians.
Scene 5: Septimius joins them, rebuking them for their refusal to join the ceremonies in honour of Caesar and warning them of the consequences of such rebellion. Theodora rejects the imputation, declaring the absolute necessity of obeying God. Septimius tells her that the guards have orders to take the women to a brothel. Theodora prays for strength, as they go.
Scene 6: Didymus enters, seeking his beloved Theodora, and Irene tells him that Theodora has been taken to a brothel. Didymus resolves to save her, praised by Irene and the Christians gathered there.
Scene 1: Valens presides over the rites, offering sacrifice to Jupiter and to Flora and to Venus, joined by his people. He praises Caesar and tells Septimius to offer Theodora pardon, if she will change her resolve.
Scene 2: Soft music is heard. Theodora, in her place of confinement, thinks of her coming shame, wishing that she could fly like the dove and be at rest amid the choir of saints and angels.
Scene 3: Didymus recalls to his friend Septimius their fellowship in battle and reveals that he is a Christian, converted by Theodora, whose present fate he deplores. Septimius cannot think that Flora or Venus would delight in Theodora’s shame. Didymus seeks his help in saving Theodora.
Scene 4: As evening falls, Irene laments the coming fate of Theodora.
Scene 5: Theodora’s place of confinement is seen, with Didymus approaching, the visor of his helmet closed. Didymus explains that he has come to save Theodora, and, as he reveals his identity, tells her to change clothes with him. Theodora praises his courage and begs him to kill her, a plea he rejects.
Scene 6: Irene, with the Christians, prays for Theodora.
Scene 1: Irene, with the Christians, continues her prayer.
Scene 2: Theodora enters, in the guise of Didymus, and Irene welcomes the supposed Didymus. Theodora reveals herself, wishing that Didymus were also free. All join in prayer for Didymus.
Scene 3: A messenger enters and tells of the courage of Didymus, condemned by Valens, who has uttered further threats against Theodora. She is resolved to rescue Didymus, in spite of the pleas of Irene, who urges her to stay.
Scene 4: Valens asks Didymus whether it is Christian virtue to to rescue one condemned by his authority. In reply Didymus claims that it was the nature of the punishment decreed for Theodora that forced him to act. Valens, suggesting that it was Theodora’s charms that had brought this about, orders Didymus to be taken away, for repentance or for death.
Scene 5: Theodora announces that she has come to pay her debt, in exchange for the freedom of Didymus. Septimius praises her virtue. Valens tells them to cease their praying. Didymus claims that he alone should die, but Theodora welcomes death. They both argue for their own deaths, now ordered by Valens.
Scene 6: Didymus and Theodora rejoice in their coming deaths.
Scene 7: Irene, with the chorus of Christians, emphasises the moral that love is stronger than death.
Theodora and the London Public
The oratorio Theodora cannot be counted among Handel’s greatest public successes. There were only two further performances a few days after the first on 16 March 1750. After this it faded from public attention. Sources are largely silent about the contemporary reception of the work and there is nothing explicit as to what displeased the London public. Certainly it was not a matter of the music, for here Handel was at the height of his power. However, a close reading of the libretto reveals some elements of the plot and some aspects of characters that might well have irritated the public. It is important to see the libretto in the context of the English intellectual climate of the mid-eighteenth century. We need to be aware of the contemporary public’s ideas and attitudes in order to understand why Theodora did not find favour with early audiences.
In the eighteenth century London came to be the centre of a worldwide empire. The city was growing rapidly and seemingly continously; the number of inhabitants doubled between 1700 and 1800, from half a million to about a million. London, then, overtook Paris and was by far the largest city of the western world. For such a city there appeared to be only one historical parallel, that of ancient Rome. It was hardly surprising that the British capital became known as the Rome of the modern world.
Ancient Rome was regarded as an example to be emulated not only because of its world empire; the comparison held good for all fields of culture. Here, in the first half of the eighteenth century, pure classicism was dominant. The ancient world provided models to be emulated in architecture and literature alike. When one thought of the ancient world, one turned, from the English perspective at this time, first of all to Rome rather than to Greece. Professional architects such as William Kent or Handel’s patron, the amateur architect Lord Burlington, set themselves to building like an English Vitruvius, and writers such as Pope and Dr Johnson strove to write like an English Horace or Juvenal. English artists created portraits in which the sitter’s social status was indicated by means of completely anachronistic, “ancient” garments.
Strangely enough, this extraordinary fixation with heathen antiquity existed side by side with the notion that England was a Christian country, a country that had adopted its very own type of Protestantism as its official state religion. The two orientations, on one side heathen antiquity, on the other Christianity, were mutually incompatible in theory. However, in practice they existed and flourished side by side.
The libretto of Theodora contains a full frontal attack on the seemingly harmonious co-existence of the ancient pagan and the modern Christian worlds. The conflict between ancient Rome and the Christian religion is here brought out in spectacular fashion. A chorus of heathens enters, giving us a song praising cruelty against Christians. Similarly the Roman governor openly declares his pleasure in power and vengeance: “Racks, gibbets sword and fire / shall speak my vengeful ire” (No 6). These instruments of torture and persecution by fire and sword were automatically associated in England in the eighteenth century with actual political enemies of the time, with countries such as France, which was regarded as the prime example of a country oppressed by a Catholic, absolutist regime. When, in the 1750s, William Hogarth, the most important English artist of the time, wanted to portray the enemy in an engraving with the title The Invasion, he showed a fanatic in a monk’s habit, with a load of instruments of torture, ready to cross the Channel and overthrow the free English.
So here we have a very substantial reason why the libretto of Theodora had the capacity to irritate contemporary audiences. The ancient Romans, the cultural model for England, appear here simply as barbaric, cruel oppressors. The model unexpectedly becomes an enemy. But that is not all. There were disturbing parallels between the ancient Roman raison d’état, which established a religious ritual as a test of civic loyalty, and the modern British raison d’état, which prescribed a religious test serving the very same purpose. The libretto of Theodora establishes an explicit connection between the recognition of the heathen gods and that of the Roman emperor. This connection between religion and politics, between the sacred and the secular was also familiar to English monarchs who, since the Reformation, had also been both Kings and Heads of the Church of England. In 1672 the Test Act had become law, according to which anyone seeking an official position must, at a set time and before witnesses, take part in the Church of England Communion Service. This law was still rigorously enforced well into the eighteenth century. Through the Communion test not only Catholics, but also those Protestant Noncomformists known as Dissenters, i.e. Baptists, Methodists and Quakers, were identified as untrustworthy citizens. They were barred not only from public offices but from studying at a university.
Of course sentiments such as “Whoso disdains to join the sacred rites / shall feel our wrath in chastisement, or death” (first recitative of Valens, No 2) would not have been put into practice in eighteenth-century England. Religious conformity was not enforced by means of torture and execution. However, the analogy between the ancient test by sacrifice and the modern test by Communion test remained obvious. The procedure followed by the ancient Romans to identify loyal heathen subjects corresponded to that used in Handel’s England to identify loyal Christian subjects. The modern equivalent of a questionable ancient practice must seem necessarily questionable.
Another irritation was the way in which the libretto portrayed Christians. The English public was fiercely anti-Catholic. Catholicism was perceived as part of a politico-religious repressiveness, seen as opposed to the British spirit of freedom. Stories of saints and martyrs were regarded as deeply Catholic and therefore suspect, apart from the secularised symbolic figures of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, or St George, patron saint of England. The choice of Theodora as principal figure in the oratorio was therefore problematic in itself.
The London public could without difficulty identify with figures from the Old Testament. Because of obligatory Protestant Bible-reading, figures such as Samson, Saul, Esther or Joshua were acceptable, as can be seen from the choice by half the country of such biblical baptismal names. Obscure martyrs and saints such as Theodora were in a more difficult position. Her story would have been completely unknown to London audiences attending early performances of this oratorio. The publication of Robert Boyle’s Love and Religion Demonstrated in the Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus (1687, with a second edition in 1703) dated back to an earlier generation and still remoter for the vast majority of the public would have been the play by Corneille, Théodore, vierge et martyre, of 1645.
Even without this pre-existing cultural prejudice against stories of martyrs and saints, the story of Theodora would still have had the potential to shock and disturb those who attended the first performance of the oratorio on 16 March 1750. Oratorios attracted people who were, on the one hand, interested in musical performances and at the same time entertained religious and moral reservations about opera. Oratorio for this not insignificant section of the London public offered a harmless, safe alternative; it promised an edifying and innocuous entertainment completely free from the seemingly disreputable aspects of all too secular opera.
Theodora could not meet such expectations in so far as a narrative of martyrdom was combined with a love story. This is clearly indicated in the libretto, even before the first part is sung and the plot unfolds. The cast list introduces the hero by name as Didymus, A Roman Officer converted by and in Love with Theodora. It is not clear whether this drama is all about religion or all about love, and this remains a matter of doubt throughout the entire oratorio. The chief pagan character, Valens, puts his finger on it when he rejects the religious motive of Didymus for his actions: ‘It was the charms of beauty, not of virtue, / that prompted you to save her’ (No 63).
On top of this dubious mixture of the sacred and the secular, there was even more to annoy the public. This becomes apparent if we turn to the oratorio’s plot and its settings. Theodora is about a horrific rape carried out for reasons of state, and what is more, this rape takes place in a brothel. None of this was toned down by the absence of costumes and on-stage props—quite on the contrary. As much of this scene had to be acted out in one’s imagination, its impact was actually strengthened. Thus, themes that were regarded as unmentionable by a polite middle-class audience formed a key element of this libretto. It was not done to speak of such things in the presence of ladies. A brothel scene suddenly intruded into what was thought of as the safe world of the oratorio. Furthermore Theodora was performed in the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden. The district was an ambivalent one, both a well-known cultural centre and a notorious red light area. In eighteenth-century texts the goings on in this quarter were often described with classical euphemism, just as in the libretto of Theodora, for example, the brothel is spoken of as ‘the place where Venus keeps her court’. Such elements of the libretto could easily be read as references to contemporary London. The oratorio could, in spite of its religious subject matter, very well suggest all too secular associations. The actual sight of prostitution directly at the doors of the theatre could colour the audience’s imagination in a way that would have been profoundly irritating. This in effect served to undermine separate categories such as inside versus outside and sacred versus secular.
A further bone of contention lay in the attitude of Theodora and her friends. Irene sings of contempt for worldly goods: ‘Bane of virtue, nurse of passions, / soother of vile inclinations, / such is, Prosperity thy name!’ (No 15). This attitude would have been somewhat unpalatable to middle-class Londoners, who were quite ready to see material prosperity as a mark of divine grace. It is not for nothing that one of eighteenth-century England’s most popular political slogans was ‘Liberty and Property!’.
It must surely have been a further matter of contention that Theodora is full of religious enthusiasm that provokes her to a spectacular act of self-sacrifice. In view of movements for religious reform such as Methodism in mid-eighteenth-century England, religious enthusiasm was a matter for mockery. Evidence for this attitude is found not only in contemporary writing but also in the work of Hogarth. Taking all of this into consideration, the final chorus of the oratorio would certainly have been regarded as controversial. Here, Theodora and Didymus praise their own imitatio Christi involving self-sacrifice as an example to be followed: ‘Let equal fire our souls inflame, / and equal zeal employ’ (No 73). Middle-class notions of gender roles would have made sure that Theodora’s behaviour was regarded as a provocation: imitatio Christi was simply not ladylike. However, Theodora’s behaviour is fiercely independent, and she is as bold and self-assured as any man. This is expressed in drastic images that go against the grain of contemporary representations of female ‘delicacy’, that is weakness and passivity. The following lines Theodora addresses to Valens are a case in point: ‘If blood your angry laws require, behold, / the principal is come to pay the debt’ (No 63). In eighteenth-century usage, “principal” means the (almost invariably male) person in charge of a major business enterprise or firm. In passages of the libretto such as these, it becomes readily apparent how the character of Theodora which is not contained by eighteenth-century notions of normality would have caused offence.
It is, therefore, no wonder that the oratorio Theodora as an independent work has been neglected for so long. The exceptional musical quality of this oratorio has meant, however, that some arias have held their ground in public favour. In the programme bills of the Handel celebrations of 1786, there is a list of pieces described as ‘Handel’s Great Favourite Works’, ‘Capital Pieces’. During this formative phase of the Handel canon, the aria Angels ever bright and fair (which was of course taken from Theodora) was regarded as one of his best-loved pieces.
English version by Christoph Heyl and Keith Anderson
Editor’s note: It should perhaps be added that there is some contemporary evidence for rumours of an earthquake as the cause for relatively small audiences for Theodora. A letter from Elizabeth Montagu to Sarah Robinson on ?20 March 1750 describes the situation: I was not under any apprehension about the earthquake, but went that night to the Oratorio, then quietly to bed, but the madness of the multitude was prodigious. Near fifty of the people I had sent to, to play cards here the Saturday following, went out of town to avoid being swallowed…The Wednesday night the Oratorio was very empty, though it was the most favourite performance of Handel’s. [Quoted from Deutsch: Handel: a Documentary Biography, London, 1955; cited by Donald Burrows, Handel, Oxford, 1994; Christopher Hogwood, Handel, London, 1984; and others.]
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HANDEL, G.F.: Theodora [Oratorio] (Wieland, Schmid...