Our first venture into the Canberra Playhouse was a resounding success, with a full house turning out to experience the Australian premiere on period instruments of Handel’s Theodora. Oblivious to the winter chills outside, the audience was mesmerised by the sublime music, moving performances and dramatic presentation.
In the words of City News reviewer Judith Crispin:
…The choral performances, overall, were magnificent. Handel’s favourite chorus “He saw the lovely youth”, a complex work of three-part polyphony, was exceptional – as was the final chorus of the Christians, “O love divine”, a prayer that the living may prove worthy of the martyrs.
The small Baroque chamber orchestra revealed deep understanding of period timbres, terraced dynamics and ornamentation. The string players maintained near-perfect intonation despite the difficulties presented by the use of gut-strings. Particularly impressive was the first violinist Bianca Porcheddu, whose caramel sonorities often accompanied a dulcet baroque oboe played by Kirsten Barry.
Special mention should be made of Harpsichordist James Huntingford whose deceptively difficult part underpins much of the oratorio. Huntingford’s subtle ornamentation complemented the surprisingly sweet tones drawn from the instrument.
Greta Bradman, in the title role of Theodora, belied the old stereotype about sopranos who can’t act. Her seamless musical performance was strengthened by a dramatic presence that never felt wooden or forced. Bradman produces an extraordinarily rich tone, a colour closer to mezzo than soprano, and her effortless pianissimo notes delighted the audience. Bradman particularly shone in her aria “Oh, that I on wings could rise”, delivered with tragic dignity and expressiveness.
Mezzo-soprano Christina Wilson as Irene, and Tenor Paul McMahan as Septimius both gave accomplished performances of those difficult roles. Stephen Bennett was satisfyingly diabolical in his role of Valens and his arias consistently revealed a full and rich bass tone.
The unchallenged star of the afternoon, for this reviewer, was the magnificent counter-tenor Tobias Cole in the role of Didymus. Acclaimed last year as “the perfect fairy king” for his performance of Oberon in Opera Australia’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cole brought that same otherworldly quality to Handel’s Theodora.
His utterly weightless melisma, perfect trills, flawless intonation and ornamentation cast a spell over the audience each time he took the stage. His portrayal of the passionate Didymus was always evocative without succumbing to melodrama – and his tonal quality was simply sublime. It is rare to find a counter-tenor of this calibre anywhere in the world, rare even on the great stages of Europe, and I hope we all realise just how lucky we are that Cole chooses to live and work here in Canberra.
Canberra Times reviewer Jennifer Gall wrote:
This was an elegant, professional production; the Heathen (Kompactus) and Christian (Canberra Choral Society) choruses gave stirring performances and the soloists’ voices were well matched to ensure sympathetic blending in the duets and trios.
It was fascinating to hear how Greta Bradman’s voice has deepened and become more richly complex since I last heard her sing in Canberra. It is a voice with distinctive colours and enunciation, and her considered approach to her solos mark her as a singer to be observed closely as her career progresses.
Christina Wilson’s demonstrative compassion in her interpretation of the role of Irene provided the perfect foil for the spiritual detachment of Bradman’s characterisation of Theodora; her voice providing contrasting warmth and emotion. Paul McMahon sang easily and well with both Bradman and Cole, engaging with the injustices decreed in act one, the growing inevitability of Didymus’s pledge to sacrifice himself for Theodora and the ultimate fate of the lovers. Stephen Bennett as Valens projected merciless brutality in his appropriately dark solos.
Cole is something of a local hero in Canberra. The influence of his good humour and rigorous attention to detail, in partnership with repetiteur Anthony Smith, were clear in this performance. Cole has further tightened discipline in his solo performances in the past year, polishing his crystal clarity in the upper notes and perfecting his phrasing.
The instrumental ensemble led by Bianca Porcheddu had a warm, well-rounded sound with delicious oboe highlights and fine playing by Peter Young (chamber organ) and James Huntingford (harpsichord).
This oratorio, with a heroine who goes to her death rather than compromise her principles, and a hero who has renounced his nation to follow her, provides much food for thought. Canberra audiences will long remember the Canberra Centenary performance.
We will certainly remember this performance for a long time … and we’re already looking forward to our next Handel oratorio in 2014!