Alexandra Lowe as Theodora credit Robert Workman
Theodora is an oratorio by Handel (his next-to-last) and staging it presents problems, naturally. Director John Ramster has come up with some very good ideas in his production for the RNCM, heaving it into the present day and fastening on to the opening situation of conflict between political power and religious conscience.
So when the Roman bossman Valens commands the people of Antioch to honour the Emperor Diocletian, we see a US-style political rally, with all the stooges jumping up and down and yelling their support. There’s even a reference, later on, to ‘the president’s decree’ which sounds very like another inhuman executive order from the White House.
Theodora is a Christian maid who refuses to bow the knee, as do all the Christians, led by Irene – who speaks for all who reject ‘the vain pomp of proud prosperity’.
So far, so good – we’re seeing people who don’t buy into the myth of money-making, growth and financial success as the way to make anywhere great again (as the real early Christians rejected emperor-worship precisely because it idolized security and economic wellbeing).
But the rest of the story is about how Theodora is condemned to be a prostitute – Ramster’s made a colourful scene evoking a world of parties, pom-poms and gaudy nightspots, to bring that bit into the 21st century – and her true love, Didymus, tries to rescue her. At this point we’re less than two-thirds through and the librettist threw in a chorus about the Biblical widow of Nain, rather taking the dramatic pace out of things. The last section sees them both condemned to death and bravely going to meet their martyrdom, but the show doesn’t offer a trial scene, following the ‘classical’ tradition of putting all the real action off-stage. Ramster has Theodora shot on stage, oddly – and then rising from the dead to play her final scenes.
The excellent chorus have a lot of praying and moralizing to do (as well as briefly being depraved pagans) in this Greek-tragedy approach to story-telling, and Ramster has planned their movements and cameo acting moments well, at least until the last half-dozen scenes.
Kieran-Connor Valentine as Didymus credit Robert Workman
The musical side of the performance, conducted by Roger Hamilton, was very good on opening night, with the first of two casts.
Alexandra Lowe stood out in the title role (not her first great performance for RNCM opera – she was Helena in the Manchester Theatre Award-winning A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Métella in the recent La Vie Parisienne): her diction is above reproach, a quality which was not consistently present with some others. This is the work from which ‘Angels, Ever Bright And Fair’ comes, and she made it the show-stopper it was meant to be.
Kieran-Connor Valentine sang Didymus, her love interest. He’s a counter-tenor (the other cast has a girl mezzo in the role) and brought a formidable technique and big reserves of power to the task. The duets for the two of them were highspots of the evening.
Bass-baritone James Berry made a very fine job of Valens, the power-crazed bad guy (from his first big aria about ‘Racks, Gibbets, Sword And Fire’ to ‘Ye Ministers Of Justice’, and Matthew Palfreyman, as Roman soldier Septimius, displayed a tenor voice of lovely tone (at his best in ‘From Virtue Springs Each Gen’rous Deed’ in part three – it’s a taxing role) and distinct ability to make recitative work.
Mezzo Rhiain Taylor gave a convincing performance as Irene, with a smooth and creamy sound throughout, and Michael Gibson was a fine Messenger.
The last RNCM operatic assault on Handel was Xerxes in 2012 – a real opera. This was a tougher nut to crack and, though admirable in stylistic intentions, was appreciable more for its singing than its drama.
James Berry as Valens credit Robert Workman