The Il Pomo d’Oro ensemble took in Milan on its mini European tour with Handel’s oratorio Theodora. It is not surprising that it is the first time that it has been performed at La Scala as when it comes to The Royal Opera House at the end of January 2022, in a staged version, it will be its first appearance since its world premiere there on 16 March 1750. The only notes of Theodora to be heard at La Scala were in the mid-eighties when both Montserrat Caballé and Katia Ricciarelli included arias from it in their recitals.
The story of the martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus, which was the subject of Robert Boyle’s 1687 book that inspired Theodora’s librettist Thomas Morell, is especially apt to be performed in Milan as it was narrated for the first time by Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, in the 4th century.
The premiere of Theodora was not a success and it received only three performances that season, then a sole performance in 1755, before being largely forgotten until regaining popularity in the second half of the 20th century.
There are various theories as to why that was, but one of the most surprising is that of an earthquake, just over a week before the opening, driving people away from the city. A witness said, “It awoke people from their sleep and frightened them out of their houses. A servant maid in Charterhouse-square, was thrown from her bed, and had her arm broken; bells in several steeples were struck by the chime hammers; great stones were thrown from the new spire of Westminster Abbey; dogs howled in uncommon tones; and fish jumped half a yard above the water.” Rare, indeed, for London.
Also, the oratorio’s subject matter and its tragic ending were somewhat unusual. The Roman governor of Antioch, Valens, decrees that sacrifices be made to Venus and Flora on Diocletian’s birthday. Faced with Theodora’s refusal due to her vow of chastity because of her Christian faith, he threatens to have her violated by the guards. Among them is Didymus, who helps her escape by lending her his helmet and armour but is arrested. Theodora asks to die in his place, but Valens has them both put to death.
Theodora’s librettist, Morell said that the second night was “very thin indeed” and also said that “I guessed it a losing night”.
Handel was irritated at its failure (though some critics sang its praises) and he considered it his finest oratorio. Morrell said, “Mr Handel himself valued [Theodora] more than any Performances of the kind; and when I once ask’d him, whether he did not look upon the Grand Chorus [Hallelujah Chorus] in the Messiah as his Master Piece? ‘No,’ says he, ‘I think the Chorus at the end of the 2d part of Theodora far beyond it.” ‘He Saw the Lovely Youth’ can be heard on YouTube in many editions.
Il Pomo d’Oro was thrillingly directed by its chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, who bounced up and down on his harpsichord stool while engaging energetically with every person on stage. For this occasion, he also led the chorus of sixteen, which produced a creamily blended sound. Lisette Oropesa as Theodora and Joyce DiDonato as Irene (Theodora’s Christian friend, who also has some of the best music) – both wearing La Scala colour coordinated ivory and gold dresses – sang Theodora’s ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’ and Irene’s ‘As with rosy steps the morn advancing’ with immense poignancy. DiDonato used every consonant to her advantage and gave her role an intense operatic treatment. Their voices blended exquisitely for ‘To thee thou glorious Son of Worth’.
Very fine too were the three men. Michael Spyres’ unique voice with its easy coloratura and baritone quality rising up to a heroic tenor, sometimes smooth and sometimes cutting, sounds as though he has two (large) voices in him, and he made an authoritative Roman officer, Septimius. John Chest, as Valens, has a dark baritone that satisfied the bass demands of the role while thrilling everyone with an added high-A (A4) during his short aria ‘Cease, ye slaves’.
French countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian was Didymus. His voice has a full, rich sound though was too even in the first part with little dynamic range, but after the interval he seemed inspired and was emotionally gripping. Emotions even got the better of him as he started to cry during the sublime pages of music that follow the death of Didymus and Theodora. No matter whether it was because of the role, the music, the fact of his debut at La Scala, or a mix of all of these, but his tenderness added even another layer of sentiment to a glorious performance.