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Handel: Theodora Box set

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Audio CD, Box set, September 12, 2000
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Editorial Reviews

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"The Jews will not come to it, because it is a Christian story; and the Ladies will not, because it is a virtuous one." Such was Handel's own assessment of the prospects for Theodora. This oratorio always has been highly esteemed by serious Handelians; in the composer's time, as in our own. Many listeners, however, could be forgiven for finding somewhat tiresome the musical account of the oh-so-chaste Princess Theodora of Antioch and her martyrdom at the hands of the Romans. Certainly many modern performances have tended to drone on--in a virtuously Protestant manner--about bidding farewell to worldly things and clinging to faith through tribulation. Of the many marvelous things about this recording, the most remarkable is the vocal acting: Paul McCreesh and his cast have created real characters with real conflicts. Susan Gritton gives us a youthful Theodora who is almost besotted with her own virtue and faith--and genuinely frightened when that faith gets her into danger. Countertenor Robin Blaze portrays Didymus, Theodora's suitor and rescuer, with love-struck impetuousness, as well as confident coloratura. Paul Agnew has always had a beautiful tenor voice, but never before has he captured so well a character's internal conflicts as in the role of the Roman lieutenant Septimius. As the Christian woman Irene and the Roman governor Valens (the libretto's respective compass points of good and evil), mezzo Susan Bickley and bass Neal Davies bring alive what could be stock roles--Bickley delicate and pure yet steadfast, and Davies exuberantly tyrannical. McCreesh's superb chorus and Baroque orchestra, as thrilling here as they were in Solomon, are probably the best interpreters of Handel oratorio who are now active. We still might get a recording of Theodora that's even more beautifully sung than this one, but we're unlikely to get one that's more dramatically engaging. --Matthew Westphal
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