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Review: Handel's 'Theodora' in Santa Monica

June 29, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Handel This is the traditional June break here, the lull between the so-called winter and Hollywood Bowl seasons when the livin’ is easy and the pickings are slim. Nevertheless, on Sunday beach-goers could have dropped in on an unusual event of note – a performance of Handel’s little-known but not lightly regarded oratorio “Theodora” – at the Santa Monica First Presbyterian Church only a block from the palisades.

It was a run-out concert for the Bach Collegium San Diego, a relatively new (2003) period-performance group that is starting to make some noise outside its home turf. The group has formed a valuable alliance with the Academy of Ancient Music’s Richard Egarr, who led Sunday’s performance from the harpsichord. Bach Collegium San Diego also gave concertgoers a generous souvenir, a card with instructions for a free download of a recording of Saturday’s performance of “Theodora” in San Diego.

“Theodora” took Handel (pictured) only a month to complete – lightning speed for such a vast work – and appears to be his only oratorio that does not use a story from the Bible or the Apocrypha. It is a tale of a Syrian Christian princess who doesn’t go along with the Roman program, but instead of being sentenced to death, she is ordered to become a prostitute in a brothel. She’d rather die than lose her virginity; her would-be lover Didymus would rather die than see her die; and ultimately Valens, the Roman governor, settles the question to their mutual satisfaction by condemning both to death.

As such, this is really an opera in disguise, and though the piece does have some musically static spots, there are many amazing passages that find Handel working at peak form – to name but a few, the rousing choral numbers near the beginning and Septimius’ zipping aria, “Dread the Fruits of Christian Folly.”

Egarr had a superb, agile group of vocal soloists to work with – soprano Mireille Asselin, countertenor Darryl Taylor, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane, tenor Derek Chester, bass John Polhamus – and he gave everyone the freedom in tempo to indulge in elaborate ornamentation. The period band on hand wasn’t so hot – not always together and in need of a firmer rhythmic foundation – but the small choir did very well, especially in the majestically flowing, somber final chorus.

-- Richard S. Ginell