Theodora (Handel)

Theodora (HWV 68) is a dramatic oratorio in three acts by George Frideric Handel, set to an English libretto by Thomas Morell. The oratorio concerns the Christian martyr Theodora and her Christian-converted Roman lover, Didymus. It had its first performance at Covent Garden Theatre on 16 March 1750.

Not popular with audiences in Handel's day, "Theodora" is now recognised as a masterpiece and is sometimes fully staged as an opera.

Context, analysis, and performance history

Handel wrote Theodora during his last period of composition. He was sixty-four years old when he began working on it in June 1749. He had written the oratorios Solomon and Susanna the previous year. Theodora would be his penultimate oratorio.[1]

Theodora differs from the former two oratorios because it is a tragedy, ending in the death of the heroine and her converted lover. It is also Handel's only dramatic oratorio in English on a Christian subject.[2]

A picture of the theatre at Covent Garden where Theodora was first performed

Thomas Morell (1703–1784) had worked with Handel before on several oratorios. He and Handel were good friends; the composer left the librettist 200 pounds in his will. Morell's source for the libretto was The Martyrdom of Theodora and of Didymus (1687) by Robert Boyle, a prominent scientist and theologian. He also borrowed from Corneille's Théodore, Vierge et Martyre.[2]

Handel finished the oratorio on 31 July 1749, and its premiere was on 16 March 1750. Theodora was a failure with the public and only played three times. There are at least two explanations for this. First, the theme of the persecution and martyrdom of a Christian saint may have been too removed from the Old Testament narratives that Londoners had become accustomed to from Handel's dramatic oratorios.[2] Secondly, an earthquake that transpired about a week before the premiere had caused some of Handel's usual patrons to flee the city.[1] It was the least performed of all his oratorios, being revived only once in 1755.

Some of Handel's patrons appreciated the work, however. Lord Shaftesbury wrote in a letter to a friend

"I can't conclude a letter and forget "Theodora". I have heard the work three times and will venture to pronounce it as finished, beautiful and labour'd [well worked-out] a composition as ever Handel made. To my knowledge, this took him up a great while in composing. The Town don't like it at all, but ... several excellent musicians think as I do."[3]

One of Handel's most loyal and enthusiastic supporters, Mary Delany, wrote to her sister Ann saying "Don't you remember our snug enjoyment of "Theodora?" Her sister replied "Surely "Theodora" will have justice at last, if it was to be again performed, but the generality of the world have ears and hear not".[3]

There are two surviving quotes of Handel about Theodora. Morell quotes Handel as saying "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one." Handel's colleague Burney took note when two musicians asked for free tickets for Messiah and Handel responded "Oh your servant, meine Herren! you are damnable dainty! you would not go to Theodora - there was room enough to dance there, when that was perform"![3]

Theodora was actually Handel's favorite of his oratorios. The composer himself ranked the final chorus of Act II, "He saw the lovely youth," "far beyond" "Hallelujah" in Messiah.[2]

It has sometimes been staged as an opera, most notably in the highly acclaimed 1996 production by Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne. This production, conducted by William Christie, starred Dawn Upshaw as Theodora, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Irene and David Daniels as Didymus. The plot has some elements of a rescue opera.

The original libretto included an extra scene in which Septimius converted to Christianity himself, however this was never set by Handel, though it was printed.

The second scene in Act 2 was also subject to several revisions by Handel.

Dramatis personae

Gaetano Guadagni, creator of the role of Didymus in "Theodora"
RoleVoice typePremiere cast, 31 July 1750
Theodora, a Christian of noble birth sopranoGiulia Frasi
Didymus, a Roman Officer, converted by and in love with Theodoraalto castratoGaetano Guadagni
Septimius, another Roman soldier and friend to Didymus tenorThomas Lowe
Valens, President of AntiochbassHenry Reinhold
Irene, a Christian and friend of Theodoramezzo-sopranoCaterina Galli
Chorus of Christians, Chorus of Heathens[4]


Theodora and Didymus exchange clothes in the brothel - antique print

Act 1

The 4th century AD. Valens, the Roman governor of Antioch, issues a decree that in honour of Diocletian's birthday all citizens will offer sacrifice to Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Flora, a fertility goddess of the spring, on pain of death, and puts Septimius in charge of enforcing this.

Didymus, a soldier secretly converted to Christianity, asks that citizens whose consciences prevent them making sacrifices to idols be spared punishment, which Valens dismisses. Septimius suspects Didymus is a Christian and affirms his own loyalty to the law although he pities those who will be condemned to die by the decree and wishes he could be allowed to extend mercy to them.

Theodora, a nobly-born Christian and her friend Irene are worshiping with their fellow believers in private rather than joining in the festival for the emperor's birthday when a messenger brings news of Valens' decree. Septimius comes to arrest them - Theodora expects to be put to death but is informed that instead she has been sentenced to serve as a prostitute in the temple of Venus. Theodora would much have preferred to die, but is led away to the temple. Irene informs Didymus who goes in the hope of either rescuing her or dying with her. The first Act closes with a chorus of Christians praying for the mission's success.

Act 2

At the start of the second Act the festival in honour of the emperor and the goddesses is being enjoyed by the pagans. Valens sends Septimius to tell Theodora that if she doesn't join in with the festival by the end of the day, he will send his guards to rape her. The crowd expresses their satisfaction at this sentence. In the temple of Venus which serves as a brothel, Theodora is frightened, but her mood changes as she contemplates the afterlife. Didymus confesses to his friend and superior officer Septimius that he is a Christian and appeals to the other man's sense of decency. Septimius allows Didymus to visit Theodora. At first Theodora appeals to Didymus to kill her and put an end to her suffering, but instead Didymus persuades her to conceal her identity by putting on his helmet and his uniform and escaping, leaving Didymus in her place.

Act 3

As the third part opens the Christians celebrate Theodora's safe return. However she feels guilty that she endangered Didymus's life in order to save her own. A messenger informs them Didymus has been captured and that Valens has changed Theodora's punishment to death. Theodora goes to offer herself in Didymus' place, despite the protests of her faithful friend Irene. As Valens sentences Didymus to be executed, Theodora enters demanding that she die and Didymus be saved. Both Didymus and Theodora argue that they should die in place of the other. Septimius is moved by this, and pleads for clemency. Valens, however, condemns both Didymus and Theodora to death and they sing a duet to their immortality.[5]

Music and musical characterisation

The oratorio is scored for 2 sections of violins, violas, cellos, double basses, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, and organ. A harpsichord and violoncello play the continuo.

Handel's music gives the choruses of Roman pagans, presented in the libretto as evil people gloating over the torture of Christians, "immense verve and charm".[3] This is contrasted with the quiet, deep conviction of the music for the choruses of Christians.[3] The chorus "He saw the lovely youth", Handel's favorite of all the choruses he wrote, depicts Jesus' raising from the dead of the widow's son in Luke, chapter 7. Beginning with slow and solemn chromatic figures in a minor key, the music switches to major as the youth returns to life and ends with joy as the boy is restored to his mother.[3] The work is notable for many passages of exalted and radiant beauty as well as for skilled characterisation through music.[1] There are three duets, the last being a sublime piece in which Theodora and Didymus die.

Handel uses trumpets, horns, and drums in the Roman scenes. Flutes are introduced in the prison scene, but some arias are very lightly accompanied which raises them far above the text.

List of musical numbers

(Note: "Symphony" in this context means a purely instrumental piece. "Accompagnato" is a recitative accompanied by the orchestra, rather than by continuo instruments only, as in the passages marked "recitative.")

Act One
Scene 1 Valens, Didymus, Septimius, Chorus of Heathens
1. Overture
2. Recitative (Valens) "'Tis Dioclesian's natal day"
3. Air (Valens) "Go,my faithful servant,go"
4. Chorus of Heathens "And draw a blessing down"
5. Recitative (Didymus, Valens) "Vouchsafe, dread sir"
6. Air (Valens) "Racks, gibbets, sword and fire"
Scene 2
8. Recitative (Didymus) "Most cruel edict"
9. Air (Didymus) "The raptur'd soul"
10.Recitative (Septimius) "I know thy virtues"
11. Air (Septimius) "Descend, kind pity"

Scene 3 Theodora, with the Christians

12. Recitative (Theodora) "Though hard, my friends"
13. Air (Theodora) "Fond, flatt'ring world, adieu!"
14. Recitative (Irene) "O bright example of all goodness!"
15. Air (Irene) "Bane of virtue"
16. Chorus of Christians "Come, mighty Father"

Scene 4 Enter Messenger

17. Recitative (Messenger,Irene) "Fly, fly, my brethren"
18. Air (Irene) "As with rosy steps the morn"
19. Chorus of Christians "All pow'r in Heav'n above"

Scene 5 Enter Septimius

20. Recitative (Septimius) "Mistaken wretches!"
21. Air (Septimius) "Dread the fruits of Christian folly"
22. Recitative (Theodora, Septimius) "Deluded mortal!"
23. Accompagnato (Theodora)"Oh, worse than death indeed!"
24. Air (Theodora)"Angels, ever bright and fair"

Scene 6 Enter Didymus

25. Recitative (Didymus,Irene) "Unhappy, happy crew!"
26. Air (Didymus) "Kind Heav'n"

Scene 7

27. Recitative (Irene) "O love, how great thy pow'r!"
28. Chorus of Christians "Go, gen'rous, pious youth"

Act Two
Scene 1 Valens, and Chorus of Heathens
29. Recitative (Valens) "Ye men of Antioch"
30. Chorus of Heathens "Queen of summer, queen of love"
31. Air (Valens) "Wide spread his name"
32. Recitative (Valens) "Return, Septimius, to the stubborn maid"
33. Chorus of Heathens "Venus laughing from the skies"
Scene 2 Theodora, in her Place of Confinement
34. Symphony
35. Recitative (Theodora) "O thou bright sun!"
36. Air (Theodora) "With darkness deep"
37. Symphony
38. Recitative (Theodora) "But why art thou disquieted, my soul?"
39. Air (Theodora) "Oh, that I on wings could rise"
Scene 3 Didymus and Septimius
40. Recitative (Didymus,Septimius) "Long have I known thy friendly social soul"
41. Air (Septimius) "Though the honours"
42. Recitative (Didymus, Septimius) "Oh, save her then"
43. Air (Didymus) "Deeds of kindness to display"
Scene 4 Irene, with the Christians
44. Recitative (Irene) "The clouds begin to veil"
45. Air (Irene) "Defend her, Heav'n!"
Scene 5Theodora's Place of Confinement.
Didymus at a distance, the vizor of his helmet clos'd
46. Recitative (Didymus) "Or lull'd with grief"
47. Air (Didymus approaching her) "Sweet rose and lily"
48. Recitative (Theodora starting,Didymus)"Oh, save me, Heav'n!"
49. Air (Theodora) "The pilgrim's home"
50. Accompagnato (Didymus,Theodora) "Forbid it, Heav'n!"
51. Duet (Theodora,Didymus) "To thee, thou glorious son of worth"
Scene 6 Irene, with the Christians
52. Recitative (Irene) "Tis night, but night's sweet blessing is denied"
53. Chorus of Christians "He saw the lovely youth"

Act Three
Scene 1 Irene, with the Christians
54. Air (Irene) "Lord, to Thee each night and day"
Scene 2 Enter Theodora, in the habit of Didymus
55. Recitative (Irene, Theodora discovering herself)"But see, the good, the virtuous Didymus!"
56. Air (Theodora) "When sunk in anguish and despair"
57. Solo and Chorus (Christians, Theodora) "Blest be the hand"
Scene 3 Enter Messenger
58. Recitative (Messenger,Irene,Theodora) "Undaunted in the court stands Didymus"
59. Duet (Irene,Theodora) "Whither, Princess, do you fly?"
60. Recitative (Irene) "She's gone"
61. Air (Irene) "New scenes of joy"
Scene 4 Valens, Didymus, Septimius, and Chorus of Heathens
62. Recitative (Valens,Didymus,Theodora,Septimius) "Is it a Christian virtue then?"
Scene 5
63. Air (Septimius) "From virtue springs each gen'rous deed"
64. Air (Valens) "Cease, ye slaves, your fruitless pray'r!"
65. Recitative (Didymus, Theodora) "'Tis kind, my friends"
66. Chorus of Heathens "How strange their ends"
67. Recitative (Didymus,Theodora, Valens) "On me your frowns"
68. Air (Valens) "Ye ministers of justice"
Scene 6
69. Recitative (Didymus,Theodora, Septimius) "And must such beauty suffer?"
70. Air and Duet (Didymus, Theodora) "Streams of pleasure ever flowing"
Scene 7 Irene, with the Christians
71. Recitative (Irene) "Ere this, their doom is past"
72. Chorus of Christians "O love divine"


Audio recordings

Giulia Frasi, soprano, creator of the role of Theodora
Year Cast
and chorus
1990 Roberta Alexander,
Jochen Kowalski,
Jard van Nes,
Hans Peter Blochwitz,
Anton Scharinger
Nikolaus Harnoncourt,
Concentus musicus Wien,
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Teldec Das Alte Werk
Cat:2564 69056-4
1992 Lorraine Hunt Lieberson,
Drew Minter,
Jennifer Lane,
Jeffrey Thomas,
David Thomas
Nicholas McGegan,
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra,
U. C. Berkeley Chamber Chorus
Harmonia Mundi
1996 Dawn Upshaw,
David Daniels,
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson,
Richard Croft,
Frode Olsen
William Christie,
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment,
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
Glyndebourne CD
2000 Susan Gritton,
Robin Blaze,
Susan Bickley,
Paul Agnew,
Neal Davies
Paul McCreesh,
Gabrieli Players,
Gabrieli Consort
Cat:0289 469 0612
2003 Sophie Daneman,
David Taylor,
Juliette Galstian,
Richard Croft,
Nathan Berg
William Christie,
Les Arts Florissants,
Les Arts Florissants
2012 Christina Wieland,
Franz Vitzthum,
Diana Schmid,
Knut Schoch,
Klaus Mertens
Joachim Carlos Martini,
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra,
Junge Kantorei

Video recordings

Year Cast
and chorus
Producer Label
1996 Dawn Upshaw,
David Daniels,
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson,
Richard Croft,
Frode Olsen
William Christie,
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment,
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
Peter Sellars DVD: Glyndebourne DVD's
2009 Christine Schäfer,
Bejun Mehta,
Bernarda Fink,
Joseph Kaiser,
Johannes Martin Kränzle
Ivor Bolton,
Freiburger Barockorchester,
Salzburger Bachchor
Christof Loy DVD:Naxos
Cat:705708 Blu-ray: 705804


  1. 1 2 3 Lang, Paul Henry (2011). George Frideric Handel (reprint ed.). Dover Books on Music. ISBN 978-0-486-29227-4.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Smither, Howard E. (1977). A History of the Oratorio: Vol. 2: the Oratorio in the Baroque Era: Protestant Germany and England. The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-1294-5.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Keates, Jonathan (1985). Handel: The Man & His Music. Random House UK. ISBN 978-1-84595-115-3.
  4. "G. F. Handel's Compositions". The Handel Institute. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  5. Karsen, Burton. "Programme notes for "Theodora"". Barbican. Retrieved 29 April 2014.
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