As I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that the cliché that “music is a universal language” actually obscures far more than it helps. Music is not a universal language, by any means. In truth, as a language music is exceptionally bounded: by chronology and culture on two sides, on the third side by personality, and on the fourth side something even more mysterious than the other three sides.
Making classical music come alive in the present moment means respecting those boundaries. Interpreting it for a contemporary audience poses the same problems as interpreting Shakespeare, namely figuring out what a piece is, what it has to say, and how best to say it. In reviving a piece that is rarely performed, musicians face an even greater difficulty in one sense than those who perform a more canonic piece. There are few historical performances to compare and contrast, to help give one a direction through the tradition. On the other hand, the absence of historical performances can also free a musician to explore the tradition much more personally.
At the heart of Händel’s Theodora, the drama is about love. Love here, however, means something quite different from the currently self-indulgent, quasi-Romantic ideals of love so well-groomed in Euro-American cinema. Love in the Baroque period is sharply divided between sacred love and profane love. Where earthly love disturbs the divine order and causes chaos, divine love is “the love that can give rest to the soul,” as Baroque writer Georg-Philipp Harsdörffer describes it in his treatise on all things Baroque, Poetischer Trichter.
On the musical level, the modern operatic composer is more or less free to determine the function of arias, accompagnatos and recitative; it is very much a century of music written to personal pleasure. Arias in modern music may tell part of the story unknown in the recitative, and the recitative may pick up from an aria and continue it or not, relate to it or not, ignore it completely or not. They may not even tell a story at all. Baroque period composers tended to view the entire function of music and opera quite differently. Divisions existed between opera, which was secular, and oratorio, which was sacred. The same division between secular and sacred exists within the pieces themselves. Early Baroque arias and recitatives had distinct functions: the recitative was the action or “picture” of the drama, while arias were made purely to comment upon the action or to express “the soul” of the drama. Again, going back to Harsdörffer, “The picture or figure is in itself the body, whereas its signification is the soul of the image.” In short, the recitative is secular and the aria is sacred.
The innovation of later Baroque composers like Händel was to change the dynamic. Arias became both reflective upon the drama (commenting on the recitative) but also figurative within themselves, filled with metaphor after metaphor that decorated the aria just as surely as the aria decorated the recitative. What Händel doubtless found so lovable about his own oratorio, and why he referred to it as his favorite, was that it unified all these divisions, which are based upon the body/soul, secular/sacred dichotomy. Didymus and Theodora share a worldly love as man and woman, but it is divine love that drives them to their decisions and ultimately their deaths. One type of love merges with the other. A similar unity comes from the division between recitative and aria within the piece itself: the formerly “pure,” secular recitative regularly expresses sacred thoughts; the “purely” sacred arias continue the figures of the recitative, and go even further beyond. Arias not only serve as metaphors for the musical action, they contain metaphors within themselves that comment upon the musical action. Furthermore, the sacred nature of the oratorio merges with the devices and action of the secular opera form. Every bit of the music reflects these unities and dualities.
While much of this seems old-timey to a modern audience that has long since learned to take it for granted, it is extremely complex. One may deny it is complex on the basis that it seems completely familiar, but that is because one’s ears have three centuries of practice listening to music that is built upon these premises or that challenges them outright. It bears repeating, then, that the Baroque world and its ideas are not those of the 21st Century. The difficulty for an orchestra, therefore, is to bridge that gap somehow.
The Northwest Baroque Masterworks Project has some competition for interpretations but not so many that it is hog-tied by history. In that spirit of calculated exploration, conductor Alexander Weismann has made decisions about the piece that both surprise and delight. His choice of tempo in the overture is, to put it mildly, quite brisk. The decision is no fluke: overall the piece is forceful, even inexorable, especially compared to the funereal mood and tempo of, say, William Christie’s Glyndebourne version of the piece, which is an object lesson in how to make an audience feel the agony on stage.
Here the agony of death becomes a triumph of divinity. Where M. Christie’s version, tied to the concept of Peter Sellars’ screed against capital punishment, was certainly effective and certainly valid, Mr. Weismann here has concentrated not on death as a futile ending but rather as a triumph of the human spirit that sacrifices everything to be close to God. In an increasingly secular society like ours, this is a gutsy interpretation.
For me, it works almost completely. The contrast of the brutal pagan bloodlust of Valens against the extraordinary Christian devotion of both Theodora and Didymus works effectively because Mr. Weismann understands the dramatic and musical function of Septimius, whose belief in his own gods is an exact mirror of Didymus and Theodora’s belief in theirs. Septimius expresses Händel’s belief that the quality of mercy and nobility belongs to neither Christian nor Roman exclusively and that anyone can be saved by divine love and grace.
Mr. Weimann is also aided by some very fine acting. Even though the production is an oratorio and therefore not fully staged, it is impossible not to admire the dramatic sense of the male singers. Matthew Brook and Lawrence Zazzo are particularly fine, and Zachary Wilder is excellent in his fairly difficult role as the middle voice between the bass of Mr. Brook and the ethereal countertenor of Mr. Zazzo. As actors, the female singers are a little less effective. Krisztina Szabó is an excellent singer and a good actress. Nathalie Paulin is an exquisite singer, and a serviceable actress. Their scenes together are somewhat weaker than the rest by comparison, and Ms. Paulin’s recitative moments are weaker overall than the rest. Part of that may be that Theodora is simply too goody-two-shoes as a character, but I do not think a stronger actress would let that stop her.
That said, however, the singing is rather glorious, especially Ms. Paulin’s excellent rendition of O that I on wings could rise and her truly awe-inspiring accompangnato and duet with Mr. Zazzo in Act Two. The chorus is quite good, and makes me wish to hear them many times over in this repertoire. The orchestra, too, is inspired. I was at first puzzled by the coloration Mr. Weimann had chosen for the winds against the low strings, but as I began to grasp the overall approach to the piece it became obvious to me that it could be no other way. The sense of doom remains fairly close to the surface throughout but at the same time there is no question musically that these fearful people in the drama are willing to make whatever sacrifice it takes, and that ultimately they will triumph as surely as the music itself. The give and take between the orchestra and the voices balances marvelously in this approach that is centrally a study in contrasts.
For the debut performance of an orchestra working on a rather difficult piece, the Northwest Baroque Masterworks Project shows great promise. Drawing from all over Cascadia from Oregon to British Columbia, they have assembled a group that can probably take on anything with aplomb, and in the hands of Mr. Weimann, whose intellect is as clear in his conducting as Karl Böhm’s was in his, I have no doubt that they will excel. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Theodora twice in my lifetime. It may never happen again in Seattle in my lifetime. If not, I am truly happy that this will be the one I hold in my memory.