Handel’s Theodora was conceived and first performed as an oratorio and it was a flop. closing after three performances. I’m not sure why. It may not be Handel’s best work but it’s got some very good numbers and it’s dramatically very strong.
In 1996 Glyndebourne staged an operatic version conceived by Peter Sellars. Occasionally Mr. Sellars frustrates me but most of the time I think he’s a genius who stages some of the most thought provoking music theatre out there. This Theodora is pure genius. Sellars sets the piece in contemporary America. The President of Antioch, Valens, (Frode Olsen) is a typical American politician; a nasty mixture of imperialist bluster, bonhomie and crass consumerism and he’s well supported by a brightly clad coke can bearing heathen chorus. The Roman soldiers wear US Navy helicopter pilot uniforms. By contrast the Christians wear combinations of black and white in pretty restrained cuts and combinations. The set is mostly bare but for some giant shattered glass vases and, as needed, a few props such as a lectern, chairs and, most chillingly, the gurneys on which Theodora and Didymus are executed by lethal injection. It all works really well. Although conceived 15 years ago it could have been last week. The idea that one can’t be a “proper Roman/American” if one doesn’t adhere to the state and socially approved approved religion and the chilling, deadly self righteousness of Valens seem especially contemporary in a week that sees an IRA supporter chairing a House investigation into Muslim disloyalty.