I have a confession to make. Yesterday, at the first night of Pinchgut Opera’s Theodora, I did something I frequently do at concerts, but not at operas. I didn’t intend to, but I couldn’t resist. Yes, I admit it. I closed my eyes.
It wasn’t that there was nothing to see on stage. Handel’s Theodora is actually an oratorio, rather than an opera, but there is plenty of drama and character to work with, and director Lindy Hume is a genius at choreographing singing actors. She picked just the right scale and weight of movement for the moment, whether it was a collective hand up to the heavens, or an individual drunken shimmy. Likewise, Dan Potra’s design matched in size and simplicity the big, archetypal questions being asked by the story, and his costumes were an elegant response to the drama of duality. (Actually, the coloured hands were a bit spooky, but very clever…). The main challenge for staging was that this is a show where all the real action is in the music.
The story of Theodora and Didymus is adapted from Robert Boyle’s novel The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus of 1687. It’s set in Antioch in the 4th Century AD and, as Lindy Hume comments in her director’s notes, it’s a classic clash of civilizations moment. The Roman president decrees that everyone must pay homage to Juno. The Christians don’t want to, so they have to die. Sorry if that gives the ending away, but this is not a drama fuelled by suspense, nor yet by the hope of a happy ending.
The real driver of this work is the extraordinary writing for solos, duets and chorus, and that’s my excuse for closing my eyes. Because, once it became clear that Theodora and Didymus were doomed, I couldn’t resist turning my attention to Handel’s music. There was so much to hear. The orchestral scoring, for a start. Pinchgut is rightly proud of its specially commissioned instruments, funded by an enlightened bunch of supporters, and we got to hear many of them last night. The chamber organ, for example, and the latest addition to the stable, the mighty contrabassoon. The underpinning of the orchestral textures with the low, farty rasp of this colossal instrument made me grin every time I heard it. And the bass line wasn’t the only star. I was completely transfixed by Mikaela Oberg’s wraithlike flute solo, stripped of vibrato, even of tapering, just raw sound.
As for the singers, the standard was as impressive as ever. In the title role was Valda Wilson, making a spectacular debut with Pinchgut in a fiendishly challenging role, not because of the vocal fireworks, but because of the rich, centred delivery, a perfect match for her characterisation. Her female foil, Caitlin Hulcup, as leader of the Christians, radiated compassion. Andrew Collis was a suitably hateful Valens, whipping up the crowd into an orgy of drunken hate. Ed Lyon returned (after his Pinchgut debut in the comedy L’Amant Jaloux last year) as the unwilling executioner. Lyons voice sounds like it might have two gears at the moment — a lyric tenor and something more helden-like. This sometimes made for an unstable sound as he transitioned through the register, but also suggests exciting potential for future roles. Finally, counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey played Didymus, the Christian convert who sacrifices himself to save Theodora. To be honest, I blame Lowrey for the whole eye-shutting thing. His aria, ‘The raptur’d soul defies the sword’, was so arresting, in terms of its sound, that I couldn’t help myself. That opening phrase, the long held note on ‘raptur’d’ was so complex, so easy and yet pained, and revealing more with every ritornello. All the suspense, in just one note.
I can’t finish without throwing a few more bouquets. Erin Helyard, the able spider weaving all the threads together from his position in the heart of the orchestra; the chorus, who deserve a review all of their own; and Liz Nielsen, founding Chair of the Board, whose vision, energy and extraordinary generosity has brought Pinchgut to where it is today. You have made something beautiful, Liz. Thank you.
Theodora runs till December 6 at City Recital Hall in Sydney. It’s being broadcast ‘almost live’ on Sunday December 4 on ABC Classic FM.
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