Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Handel: Theodora – Salzburg 2009: I Respectfully Dis-regie

I have nothing but praise for the musical quality of this performance of Handel’s oratorio. Each soloist is top notch (both singing and acting), the Salzburger Bachchor is outstanding, and I don’t think the Freiburger Barockorchester can do anything wrong.  However, I feel neutral-to-negative about the overall package.

Director Christof Loy thinks the oratorio has no narrative, so he doesn’t bother to deal with it. I happen to disagree with him, but he somehow forgot to consult with me.  The Groβes Festspielhaus is hardly an ideal venue for this intimate work. However, Loy notes that the massive stage helps him create an “installation” in which intimacy appears to be “threatened in the most extreme ways.” I admire him for attempting to turn a liability into an advantage, but I don’t buy this half-and-half, kind-of-staged approach. I say have more action; have less action; take a stand.  He keeps teasing me into thinking something is going to happen, but then it doesn’t.  If one is going to treat the piece as if there is no narrative, do a concert performance, or at least give us some nice tableaux to look at.

Loy does have it together with the Personenregie.  The soloists move with drama, purpose, and conviction, and I like the fact that most of them are on stage most of the time, acting and interacting with one another.  Oddly, the most action occurs during an organ concerto interpolated into Act 3 to show the discovery and capture of Theodora and Didymus.

The dynamic staging of the organ concerto.

Christine Schäfer is a wonderful singer, but I often find her physical presence disturbing. I realize that Theodora is not supposed to be happy, but I like to think of her more as a heroine—strong and determined—not wimping around looking sad.  She makes virtue look painful and unpleasant.  Also, we can get the point that Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Valens is heathen and lecherous without quite so much leering, grabbing, and lip-licking.  However, they both sing well, and the rest of the cast is quite good, too. Joseph Kaiser is a vehement Septimius; Bernarda Fink offers a compassionate Irene; and Bejun Mehta as Dydimus is an ardent advocate (lover/not lover) for Theodora.

Aside from the semi-staged setting, I think it’s the chorus’ stage direction, or lack thereof, that makes me uncomfortable.  When they have specific movements or places to go, they do fine. But it looks like there are places where Loy told the choir to just mill around. It looks like milling around with no particular intention, and it’s very distracting.  I would rather see them move in clumps or blocks in a more stylized way—as in Guth’s Messiah—and/or be decorative. Or get the opera chorus to do the show (though they certainly wouldn’t sing it as well). 

Salzburger Bachchor: angelic, and their English is good, too; 
but they're most convincing when standing still. 

There is no denying these choristers sing like angels. In fact, under the direction of Ivor Bolton, everyone sings so well that I wish the production were more visually interesting. It’s great for its audio, and I did enjoy the video more on second viewing. But when I set aside 3 hours to sit still, watch, and listen, I hope for something more engaging.

Here is the closing duet, beautifully sung by Christine Schäfer and Bejun Mehta.

(They exchanged clothes so she could escape.)


  1. Have you seen Peter Sellars' Glyndebourne staging of Theodora? I think it's almost perfect and the performances are legendary.

  2. Hey John! Yes, I actually have it on VHS(!!!)but I have to confess I have not seen all of it. I've watched most of the clips on YouTube and I agree there is not a bad vocal performance in it. I'd forgotten Richard Croft was in that too. (I am making room on my pedastal for him these days!)

    Thanks for the reminder. For other readers, here is the operaramblings review of that production.


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