Last night to the second night of Pinchgut’s production of Handel’s Theodora.
For the first time, as far as I can make out, Pinchgut are doing a run of 5 performances – up from the 4 in a week which has been the pattern for many years. That’s got to be a milestone of sorts for which they deserve congratulation. I see they propose to repeat that for their December performance next year.
I’ve always thought of “fate worse than death” as a bit of a joke phrase, probably because I was most familiar with it as a parodic usage in Have some Madeira M’dear. The OED traces “fate worse than death” to 1810. The libretto for Theodora anticipates that by about 60 years though without the collocation with “fate.”
Theodora is one of a bunch of Christians in Antioch who have refused to sacrifice to Jove.
Here is the context. Septimius is a sympathetic soldier; Didymus a chaste admirer of Theodora and Valens is the governor who has ordered that Theodora be punished. Septimius breaks the news to Theodora:
Death is not yet thy doom:
But worse than death to such a virtuous mind,
Which Didymus wants eloquence to praise.
Lady, these guards are order’d to convey you
To the vile place, a prostitute, to whom
Valens thinks proper to devote your charms.
Oh, worse than death indeed! Lead me, ye guards,
Lead me, or to the rack, or to the flames,
I’ll thank your gracious mercy.
Angels, ever bright and fair,
Take, oh take me to your care;
Speed to your own courts my flight,
Clad in robes of virgin white.
Angels. . . da capo
Exit Theodora with Septimius
This is a “well-known” air. Together with the accompagnato (orchestrally accompanied recitative) which comes before, it is something of a triumph for Leo when he sings it (a triumph of course pregnant with impending disaster) in LP Hartley’s novel The G0-Between. In the novel Leo sings AEBAF as a follow-up to The Minstrel Boy. In the film it is just the Handel.
In the novel, a staple year 11 text for teaching symbolism when I was an English teacher, Hartley makes rather a lot out of the fate worse than death (not strictly a phrase in the song or the recit).
That made a kind of double-whammy: original and serious “worse than death” usage, and the original context of Leo’s song.
Coincidentally or not, it was at around about this point that the story got moving (in both senses really) and the music became more emotionally engaging for me (actually that started a bit before). The word which comes to mind is eloquent. I was moved to tears at points.
I’m not sure if the staging is entirely successful (there was this big table on one side of the stage which dominated proceedings in a rather awkward way), and Andrew Collis had a rather thankless task as Valens.
The chorus was great – if anything the men were a bit strong, which is a welcome change from the usual. The orchestra also acquitted itself well – I thought the violins in particular carried off their ripieno obbligatos with great elan and, in an improvement from previous years, the oboes were up to scratch. And then there was the monster contra-bassoon! Just occasionally, in very quiet moments, I wondered if Erin Helyard could have made his continuo organ quieter.
In his review for the SMH et al, Peter McCallum concludes:
“Of all the Pinchgut productions to date, this was the most rewarding for its restrained, purposeful drama and seraphic musical refinement.”
I’m still not quite sure what this means – does he mean that Theodora was most rewarding provided you were measuring rewards of “restrained, purposeful drama and seraphic musical refinement” or does he mean most rewarding generally, by reason of those integers? I suppose this sort of judicious statement is why PMcC is a music critic and I am not. I’ve seen 14 of Pinchgut’s 18 productions since 2002. In the early years I might have been able to apprehend improvement and consolidation but I would be hard put by now to say of any one “it’s the best yet.”
I enjoyed it very much – more than I expected to, in fact. Maybe it went on a bit, in terms of the narrative, towards the end – but who would want to stop the music? (apart from Pinchgut itself which apparently imposed a few cuts.) By then I was really into the groove.
I would love the chance to go again but expect to be away, so Sunday’s broadcast on ABC “Classic” FM will have to suffice.