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Northern Sinfonia - Theodora reviewed by The Guardian

Posted on 3 November 2009

Northern Sinfonia – Theodora

Alfred Hickling, The Guardian ****

Many of Handel’s oratorios had a ground-breaking impact. The 1750 premiere of Theodora suffered a genuinely seismic interruption when a series of earth tremors in London sent the cognoscenti scurrying for cover, leaving the composer with a notorious flop on his hands. Despite that, Handel reserved a special place in his heart for the work, and maintained that one of its numbers, He Saw the Lovely Youth, was superior to the Hallelujah Chorus. He may have been alone in that assessment, but the decision to present the work in semi-staged form was a fittingly ambitious way for the Northern Sinfonia to celebrate Handel’s centenary year.

Theodora is unusual among the oratorios in that it features a New Testament subject and a tragic ending. Drusilla Harris’s minimal staging was enough to suggest that the distinction between oratorio and opera is practically meaningless, and Nicholas Kraemer, directing from the harpsichord, demonstrated that every bar is suffused with drama, while the Northern Sinfonia Chorus made a fine job of playing baying pagans one minute and pious Christians the next. James Gilchrist and Susan Bickley brought a touch of quality to the subsidiary roles of Septimus and Irene. And although the original Didymus, Robin Blaze, had to withdraw, Iestyn Davies turned out to be the ideal alternative with a flutey, full-blooded counter-tenor that perfectly complemented the sweet, pristine soprano of Carolyn Sampson in the title role. Sampson showed a commanding range of colour but was never better than when singing softly and almost without vibrato. The hushed concluding duet arrived with a ravishing sense of consummation. Not for the first time, a performance of Theodora seemed to make the earth move.

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