Kitchen-sink drama: Handel, ‘Theodora’, at the Royal Opera House

Handel’s ‘Theodora’ is an oratorio. In other (well, more) words, it’s a vocal/choral work that would normally have a plot at its core, but presented as a purely aural experience. Traditionally, oratorios would be sung in concert with no staging, movement, or action to speak of. The music must propel any narrative, drive every reaction, generate every emotion in the audience. So, when an oratorio is staged as an opera, it’s important to ask not just how … but why?

Please note – I want to talk about certain aspects of this production in full, so if you are yet to see it, be warned: spoilers ahead. Can I also add a sincere warning for anyone not wishing to read about sex, violence and their potential interplay with religion, although the production itself turned out to be tamer than many suspected or feared.

All photography is by Camilla Greenwell, taken from the ROH press pack.

Many people expect opera of any kind to be ‘high-octane’, whether it’s a flamboyantly-tragic Puccini tearjerker, a fantasy epic from Wagner or an assault on the senses, like ‘Elektra’ or ‘Wozzeck’. So, early / Baroque opera can present a challenge to the modern listener, let alone oratorios. No doubt part of the inclination to fully stage them comes from fear of 21st-century short attention spans and the need to occupy the wandering mind.

I came to all of those before seeing my first Handel opera, and it took me a long time to ‘lock into’ its different pacing, its way of moving the story along in short bursts of recitative, while drawing you into the characters’ minds and motivations through the arias. It was like moving the artform back from action into thought.

(I find it interesting that Glass and Adams, as figureheads of US opera, seem to hark back to this approach. I think it’s something to do with the minimalist way of working through forms and ideas. The former’s great Trilogy abandons conventional narratives for an experience that is wholly ‘thought’, making great use of his gift for building pulses and patterns. No accident, surely, that our generation’s great Akhnaten, Anthony Roth Costanzo, should bring Handel and Glass together on a CD. Adams, meanwhile, is perhaps the highest-profile present-day composer to focus on the oratorio form alongside his operas.)

‘Theodora’, though, has plenty of action, even if you weren’t supposed to see it enacted on-stage. It moves from massacre to martyrdom, by way of rape and prostitution. The original setting is Antioch in the 4th century, under Roman rule. Theodora is one of a group of Christians who, like their fellow believers, must gather in secret. The cruel governor Valens issues a death sentence for anyone refusing to worship Roman gods on his new festival day. He dismisses outright the appeals to show mercy from Didymus, a Roman soldier who has converted to Christianity himself, and who loves Theodora.

Theodora resists and is prepared to die as a result, but instead she is sent to a brothel to work as a prostitute. Didymus heads off to rescue her. She asks him to kill her so that her suffering can end and he will be ok, but instead, he persuades her to put on his outfit and escape in disguise. However, on hearing that Didymus has been discovered, Theodora heads straight back to give herself up. The couple offer their lives for each other, but are put to death regardless, convinced of their eternal life and love. Each of the protagonists have a confidante who comments on the situation and widens the perspective. They feel vitally three-dimensional in comparison with the central pair’s cipher-like virtue. Didymus’s fellow soldier Septimius seems to prefer kindness and leniency but accepts Valens’s absolute rule. Theodora’s friend Irene is somehow earthier, her full-blooded devotion embodying a connection we can understand between the Christian chorus and the too-good-for-this-world heroine. (Irene in particular feels like an absolute pivotal role, helping to glue the whole piece together: Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson’s performance for the mid-90s Glyndebourne production has entered the pantheon, as perhaps will Joyce DiDonato’s agile, thoughtful interpretation here.)

Joyce DiDonato as Irene

This new production for the Royal Opera is directed by Katie Mitchell. This is the fourth opera I’ve seen at the ROH with Mitchell at the helm. Two of these were the premieres of operas by George Benjamin, ‘Written on Skin’ and ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’, while the other was her controversial staging of Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’.

At first glance, Mitchell’s approach seems utterly consistent, to the point where you will see a readily-identifiable ‘Mitchell piece’, whatever the material. This is clearly a reductive over-simplification for a career that spans some 100 productions. Nonetheless, reviews or discussions of Mitchell’s work seem to reference a handful of recurring elements: the feminist interpretation of the source; the aesthetic approach (chunking or dividing the stage into rooms, compartments or boxes); and, as a result, the effect of multiple viewpoints, of looking into several spaces at once or seeing something once hidden. You could also add slow motion or distortion of time, used to such powerful effect in the closing section of ‘Written on Skin’. Certainly, these elements typify the examples I’ve seen at the ROH.

With the Donizetti, they forced us to face head-on what was actually happening to Lucia on one side of the stage while the ‘actual’ action of the opera took place on the other. At the same time, a rather mundane difficulty became apparent: it’s hard to watch two things at once, especially in a venue like the Royal Opera House, where your sightline can be affected by how high up, or how far away you are.

With Benjamin’s first full-length opera, though, it was like the composer and director had fused minds. Clearly both – along with playwright Martin Crimp, who wrote the text – want to call out and interrogate misogyny and the abuse of women by men who conflate sex and power. The sets for ‘Written on Skin’ were integrated so tightly that the move of the immortal characters between the two realms felt seamless. The raw claustrophobia of the story was perfectly synced to Benjamin’s lean writing and Mitchell’s tight control of space. (Not to mention the unforgettable commitment of the cast.) The follow-up used similar techniques to great effect, but with a less complex story and lacking the ‘shock of the new’, didn’t quite scale the same heights.

Coming to a further staging that brings all of these traits together once more, it’s tempting to think that ‘Theodora’ might just be another piece of the jigsaw, part of an overall ‘Mitchell Project’. In some respects, perhaps it is. But it struck me more as an ongoing refinement, where – one or two reservations aside – everything in the director’s arsenal clicked with the material.

In this interpretation, the setting has been visually updated – so we still have Romans and Christians, but with modern dress and modern tech. Suits and guns replace tunics and swords: think ‘The Long-Ago Good Friday’. However, Mitchell’s Christians are not weary stoics, but resourceful, efficient activists, plotting against their tyrannical invaders. We are in the recognisable Mitchell-verse of tightly delineated spaces, here in conveyor belt motion so we see sequences of rooms and passages move left and right along the same horizontal plane. (The governor’s residence is something akin to state apartments or an embassy.)

These rooms include a spacious, if functional, kitchen with island, a dining room of sorts, and a boudoir set – in other words, a kind of ‘hyper-real’ presentation of all the rooms we need to see, but not where they would be in actuality. Set designer Chloe Lamford deserves huge credit for making the world of the opera coherent, yet artificial, even uncanny.

(It’s wise to simply suspend disbelief. For example, I found myself briefly wondering why the persecuted Christians would meet in the actual abode of their sworn enemy, leading certain characters to dive behind the island, cartoon-style, whenever a Roman henchman came in. But the clockwork, seamless nature of the setting as a whole soon dominates and subdues any waggish urge to nit-pick.)

With a thriller scenario established, the problem I alluded to earlier remains. It must be a challenge for any director taking on this style of opera (or oratorio) – what happens on stage as the arias repeat and stretch out, in defiance of the dramatic impulse to push the story forward?

Mitchell, given to bending time and space, is equal to the task. She seizes on the repetitive nature of the arias to ratchet up the suspense, as if they were a movie soundtrack intensifying the tension with recurring motifs. If you happen to be unfamiliar with the score, you find yourself on edge, wondering how far the scene can be sustained, how many more repeats there might be. She also twists this particular knife with the signature slow-motion effect, making some of the edgier moments even more agonising.

Elsewhere, I felt the split-screen technique earned its keep. The contrast between the board room and the kitchen – side by side here, rather than ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ – was so cleanly drawn that crossing the corridor between them became meaningful (the conflicted Septimius ranging freely across both territories).

Prostitutes made to cavort in the embassy early in the opera later pole-dance in the brothel as Theodora laments her plight, the moving set allowing them to occupy the same physical space but in new surroundings. Sex and power are super-imposed; the occupiers abuse and disdain women, as they abuse and disdain their office. One particularly poignant juxtaposition has one of the prostitutes tend to Theodora, recovering from her rape by one of Valens’s thugs, as Didymus sings of “Deeds of kindness…” in the embassy.

Julia Bullock as Theodora

Perhaps less expected was a strain of mordant wit, with Didymus as its victim. His terrier-like persistence at haranguing Septimius was full brought out during “Thy raptur’d soul…”, the latter – apparently just trying to grab a moment’s peace and a snack – getting more exasperated with every repeat. Later on, Mitchell fully embraces the gender-bending potential of the outfit swap. Theodora is able to slip away in Didymus’s jacket and jeans, while her ardent lover stays behind in her glittering mini-dress, heels and platinum blonde wig. With its metallic glint, it’s hard not to see this as a deliberately camp parody of a short Roman tunic. Countertenor Jakub Józef Orlinski throws himself into proceedings, picking up some slinky moves on the pole from his new colleague.

Orlinski’s passionate performance is in fact representative of a brilliant ensemble, who channel utter conviction into score and scenario alike. Julia Bullock is tender, yet resolute in the title role with a constantly mobile, watchful Joyce DiDonato stunning as Irene. Ed Lyon, as expressive in body language as in voice, eloquently conveyed – even to our amphitheatre seats – the emotional push and pull weighing down on Septimius. Guyla Orendt, in the ‘panto villain’ rotten-through-and-through role of Valens, gave the character more dimensions by singing as if from the depths of moral hell. Under conductor Harry Bicket – specialist in this field – the ROH Orchestra sounded by turns agile and lush: overall, glorious.

In so many ways, this is a triumph: certainly a success in that I was riveted – and, musically enraptured – throughout. But there is a twist in the tale, with Mitchell’s final slow-motion surprise. Irene rescues Theodora and Didymus from their doom (freezing to death in the embassy’s cold store). The other side of the split-screen shows the Christians mobilising at last, pouring into the building, murdering Valens and his entourage. Our hero and heroine brandish weapons to join the occupation of the embassy, as the curtain falls.

Everyone who sees the ending will have their own view on how well it works – if at all. Mitchell willingly sprints over the line between interpreting a work and fundamentally changing it – and some will no doubt see this as her deciding to ‘improve’ it. I think I’m standing on the line. The shock of seeing such a full-on reverse in the story’s trajectory – the dramatic audacity of it – made for a genuinely exhilarating coup de théâtre.

While we’ve been watching potential acts of terrorism play out on-stage, the text and original plot contrast Roman cruelty with peaceful, self-sacrificial resistance from the Christians, and as characters, Theodora and Didymus are heading for this passive martyrdom all the way up to the final few minutes. But Mitchell snaps us back into her world. Religion, or its abuse, has been at the root of limitless terror and violence over centuries: for her Christians, it will end in a bloodbath.


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