I don’t often get deeply emotionally affected by an opera video. Generally it’s less immersive than a live performance in a way that diminishes emotion. That wasn’t my experience though with the 2022 recording of Handel’s Theodora from the Royal Opera. Admittedly Theodora is an opera I can get very emotionally involved in but Katie Mitchell’s production really did get to me.
In many ways it’s typical Mitchell. The set is made up of a changing array of “cells” with usually more than one visible at any time. There’s a concept. We are in a Roman embassy in some version of the present where the Romans are the imperial power. The Christians, who are embassy employees, are plotting the destruction of the embassy. The central “cell” is a very high tech kitchen where Theodora, Irene and Marcus are employed. Septimius is the head of security for the embassy and Didymus is part of his team. Valens is the ambassador.
The moral basis of the plot is, of course, “They are not Caesar’s friends who own not Caesar’s gods” for some value of “gods”. But here it’s not a simple question of persecution and martyrdom. Mitchell forces us to ask “How far can one, should one go in opposing tyranny?” When do violent acts of rebellion become morally justified? Against Hitler? Against the apartheid regime in South Africa?, against Ron de Santis? Mitchell doesn’t answer that question. How could she? But she does force the audience to confront it.
Here the Romans, as personified by Valens, are brutal and sexual predators. Didymus rebels against this and Septimius has to find his own line between duty and compassion. It’s not nicely one-dimensional. Theodora and co are building a bomb to destroy the embassy and , presumably kill a bunch of innocent people along with it. There’s some suggestion that Theodora intends to be a suicide bomber. At the end of Act 1 there’s an incredibly tense scene acted in Slo-mo where Septimius and gang break in on the bomb makers and Theodora tries to set the device off while Septimius tries to decide which wire to cut. All this is played over a gorgeously sung “As with rosy steps the morn”. It’s gripping.
The conspirators are arrested despite Didymus’ pleas for mercy. While “Angels ever bright and fair” is sung Theodora is stripped of her dress and forced to wear a short, sparkly number with heels and a blonde wig before she is led away to the “vile place”. Non canonically, Irene baptises Didymus.
Valens opens Act 2 in the company of two of Theodora’s new colleagues in a weird ritual involving the bomb and a gun. Then we move to the rather lurid brothel where the two girls pole dance (very well) before offering Theodora cocaine. Then it gets nasty. One of the guards takes Theodora off to the back room and it’s obvious from the state we next see her in what has happened. (Worth m,entioning at this point that the make-up is movie standard with blood and bruises galore). When Didymus shows up there’s a lot of scary gun play. In fact that’s a theme throughout. People hold automatics to their own heads and other people’s heads and point them all over the place. Eventually though Didymus makes into into the first brothel “cell” where he resists the charms of one of the girls before making it to the space where Theodora is sacked out. After a while they change clothes and Theodora escapes vis a window, Didymus is now left trying to fool Valens with his (surprisingly good) pole dancing skills.
As Act 3 opens Valens is having more fun with his girls before Theodora appears to plead for Didymus which, of course, gets them nowhere. We see a Theodora/Didymus wedding celebrated while the chorus sing “How strange their ends”. The chosen method of execution is to throw the lovers into the embassy cold store but there’s a twist. There’s a final Slo-mo scene while “Fruits of pleasure” is sung. Basically there’s a very brutal, bloody rescue which ends with Theodora shooting Valens. I won’t describe it in detail. It would be too spoilerish. But, of course, instead of a morally unambiguous Christian martyrdom we are left with the questions we started with unanswered.
Pulling off this concept takes really strong singing and acting and it’s here n this production. Julia Bullock, Joyce DiDonato and Jakob Jozéf Orlinski as the central trio of Theodora, Irene and Didymus are fantastic. There’s a combination of theatrical intensity and pure Handelian musicality that is utterly compelling. All the big numbers get full weight and proper style. Ed Lyon’s Septimius is also well done. It’s an interpretation that really focuses on the duty/compassion dilemma to the diminishment of the Didymus bromance elements but it works. Gyula Orendt is a really sleazy Valens as this production demands. He’s brutal and crudely sensual with a “bring it on” swagger. More a less clownish Donald Trump than Roman patrician perhaps but that’s how this production works. There’s a perfectly competent cameo from Thando Mandjana as Marcus. The chorus sings nicely and does really have a lot else to do. And finally a word for the actors and dancers who round out the cast. They are terrific.
There is a subset of the ROH Orchestra in the pit. I didn’t really get an idea how many and, of course, it’s modern instruments. It sounds fine though and Harry Bicket’s tempi seem OK; maybe a bit on the slow side, and he keeps things in synch which can’t be easy with this set.
The video director is Peter Jones and he does what I think one has to do with these multi-cellular productions; enough shots to establish what the audience is seeing at different times than show the cell with the main action. The video and audio (DTS-HD-MA and hi res stereo) on Blu-ray are fine. I suspect the “one cell”shots would look OK on DVD too but that the variably lit whole stage shots would look a mess. The disk production is the bare bones approach that Opus Arte seems to have switched to. There’s a cast gallery on the disk and a brief synopsis and virtually useless track listing (6. Act1 Scene5) in the booklet and that’s your lot. Subtitle options are English, french, German, Japanese and Korean.
Any recording of Theodora is going to get compared with the classic 1996 Peter Sellar’s recording. For my money, this one, while very different is equally compelling dramatically and equally well sung, which is high praise indeed.
Catalogue number: Opus Atre OABD7313D