I became fascinated with Händel in my last year of symphonic band. Being an oboist, I was always on the lookout for music actually written for my instrument and I adored his C minor oboe sonata. I’d grown into music from the 20th Century earlier, especially Berio and Reich, and something about Händel struck me as remarkably contemporary, especially his vocal pieces like Zadok The Priest, with its proto-minimalist use of repeated arpeggios.
That’s when I first heard Theodora, or at least a piece of it. One of my friends, a voice major in college, sang “O that I on wings could rise” for her recital and I realized I had never heard the piece. As it turned out, almost no one had. It was such a beautiful air, simple on the surface, but emotionally profound quite beyond what one normally expects from Baroque music, that I could only ask myself why it had disappeared from the repertoire.
Theodora had only three, possibly four performances (if one believes Watkins Shaw) upon its debut in 1750. It proved to be Handel’s most crushing commercial failure. Various scholars have their own theories about its failure: it debuted at the wrong time, interrupted by an earthquake; it was too introspective and no one liked the tragic ending; it was an unexpected religious theme–and a host of other hypotheses. Whatever the cause of its failure, Händel himself went into a great funk over the piece’s reception. He took a figurative pair of scissors to his score and made brusque cuts out of it, disfiguring the score so poorly that a complete version of it remained unavailable until 1984.
The piece has always had its fans, however. The Earl of Shaftesbury remarked upon its initial performance, that
I have heard it three times, and will venture to pronounce it, as finished, beautifull and labour’d a composition, as ever Handel made.… The town don’t like it at all, but Mr. Kelloway and several excellent musicians think as I do.
Lately the work has started to get its due among classical music lovers. Since its 1996 production at Glyndebourne, Theodora has had several recordings and even more performances. In the Pacific Northwest, it most recently appeared in Victoria last June in a version by the Victoria Philharmonic and it is possible that this performance spurred the early music aficionados of the Northwest to put on their own version.
Theodora, however, is one of Handel’s largest-scale oratorios, and it requires a sizable orchestra and chorus. To perform it correctly, conductor Alexander Weimann assembled a new orchestra, the Northwest Baroque Masterworks, a coalition of Seattle’s own Early Music Guild, Early Music Vancouver, and Victoria’s Early Music Society of the Islands. Musicians for the piece come from all over Cascadia, with Seattle chipping in from Seattle Baroque Orchestra, Pacific MusicWorks, The Tudor Choir, and The Byrd Ensemble.
Mr. Weimann has a remarkable roster of talent in renowned soprano Nathalie Paulin, lovely mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, exquisite countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, suave tenor Zachary Wilder, and the award-winning bass Matthew Brook. The combined forces of the Northwest Baroque Masterworks, too, is suitably large, featuring an orchestra of twenty-eight musicians and a chorus of forty.
I’ve heard it said that Theodora “serves as a timeless parable of spiritual resistance to tyranny and an indictment of persecution, topics that still resonate with audiences today.” Perhaps. I do know that it is a delicate work that is at times rich, at times spare but always beautiful. I’m interested to hear which direction Alexander Weimann will take the piece which, long after its disastrous origins, finally seems to be getting some respect.
Tickets are $45, $40 for seniors, $20 for students and patrons under 25, and $27 for side section seats. For tickets and additional Early Music Guild information visit http://www.earlymusicguild.org/theodora or call (206) 325-7066.
Alexander Weimann and Gus Denhard, Early Music Guild executive director, will have a preconcert conversation in the hall at 7:00 p.m. The conversation is open to ticket holders at no additional cost.