Opera Scotland

Theodora

Music

George Frideric Handel (born Halle, 23 February 1685; died London, 14 April 1759)

Text

Dramatic oratorio by Thomas Morell.

Source

Novel The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus (1687) by Robert Boyle.

 

Premieres

First Performance: London (Covent Garden), 16 March 1750.

First Performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Festival Theatre), 11 December 2003.

 

Background

Theodora was among the last of Handel's dramatic oratorios, and considered by him to be one of the best. Though set in the Christian era, the plot is not derived from biblical sources. It contains a good range of arias for the four largest roles (Valens being a simpler dictator figure) as well as excellent choral writing. Since the success of the Peter Sellars staging at Glyndebourne, which was brought to Edinburgh in 2003, the work has also been produced successfully at the Salzburg Festival and appears to be entering the general repertory.

 

Characters

Theodora, Princess of Antioch, a Christian (soprano)

Irene, a Christian (alto)

Didymus, a Roman officer, converted by, and in love with Theodora (alto)

Septimius, a Roman officer, his friend (tenor)

Valens, President of Antioch (bass)

Messenger (tenor)

 

Plot summary

The setting is early 4th century Antioch. The region is under Roman occupation, and governed by Valens. To celebrate the birthday of the Emperor Diocletian, sacrifices to Roman deities are to be made by the citizenry, with severe penalties for anyone who refuses. Septimius, loyal to the Roman government, is put in charge. His friend Didymus, secretly a Christian, asks for a more lenient treatment of dissidents. However this leads to an even harsher outcome, while only drawing suspicion on himself.

A group of Christians congregate to celebrate their faith, led by Theodora and Irene. The Messenger gives them the latest news. Irene gives them courage to face the future. When Septimius arrives to arrest them, he informs Theodora that her future is not the expected martyrdom but a life of prostitution. She is led away, and when Didymus arrives, Irene breaks the news to him and he determines to rescue his love.

The Roman festival is under way, while Septimius advises Theodora to prepare for her ordeal. The soldiers look forward to their session in the brothel. Didymus arrives, and persuades Septimius, who is on guard duty, to admit him to see Theodora. He admits to his friend that he is a Christian, and is allowed in. The Christian congregation, led by Irene, pray for Theodora's protection. At first Theodora does not recognize Didymus, and she then rejects his plan that they should exchange clothes, allowing her to escape. She begs him to kill her, thus preserving her honour. Didymus at last persuades her that his plan will allow them both to survive.

Theodora, now free, rejoins the Christians, but word arrives that Valens is furious at her escape, has captured Didymus, and sentenced Theodora to death. She calmly decides to accept her fate, in exchange for Didymus' freedom. She arrives during his trial, and the assembled Romans are astonished when each begs to be killed in place of the other. Septimius, in particular, begs for clemency. Valens is not to be persuaded, and sentences them both to death. They welcome this gladly, while Irene and the Christians pray for an equally strong faith.

The Cast

Didymus
 a Roman officer, secretly converted by, and in love with, Theodora
Irene
 friend of Theodora, a Christian
Messenger
 
Septimius
 a Roman officer, and friend of Didymus
Theodora
 Princess of Antioch, a Christian
Valens
 President of Antioch

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