Subject: I have found a DVD that I think you would enjoy
|Handel - Theodora / Peter Sellars William Christie Upshaw Hunt Daniels Croft Glyndebourne Opera|
Actors: William Christie, David Daniels, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
Genres: Drama, Musicals & Performing Arts
For his 1996 Glyndebourne staging, radical American director Peter Sellars takes George Frideric Handel?s penultimate English oratorio - a tale of self-sacrificial love between a Christian virgin and a Roman imperial bodyg... more »
Magnificent and Powerfully Moving
G P Padillo | Portland, ME United States | 09/10/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Peter Sellars sets the production in (around) the present and while several things may
not make literal sense (e.g., an American president condemning a virtuous Christian woman to a sentence of prostitution at the Temple of Venus for not worshiping Roman gods), the contemporary setting for the most part is powerfully effective.
Save for carry on props (chairs, etc.) the only "set" is an ever changing setting of enormous stressed antique Roman tear bottles. Profoundly simple and beautifully capturing the feel of the "ancient" in this updated setting.
Frode Olsen's President Valens opens the work declaring that his gods are to be worshiped and his happy followers (each carrying an American soft drink, which I thought to be a minor unfortunate directorial choice) rouse and begin the first of the big hand gestures which will occur throughout the rest of the night. For once Sellars' use of hand gestures not only appropriate but excitingly useful. Olsen's rather large voice was exciting and reminded me a little of Triegle's turn as Giulio Cesare.
As two of the president's main guards, David Daniels (Didymus) and Richard Croft (Septimius) are magnificent. While much is written about Daniels, I have for years been amazed by the sheer beauty of Richard Croft's voice. I have always been a fan, and his singing here evoked beautiful memories of a Semele a few years back where his "Where 'er you walk" won the prize for the most beautiful singing I've experienced live.
It is nearly impossible to separate Sellars direction of "Theodora" from the vocal performances - there is so much going on, indeed, the entire work achieves a nearly balletic performance. I would imagine it, in our era especially, to strip sexuality from a stage work, to be extremely difficult. Sellars, early on, establishes same sex bonding, first between Didymus & Septimius, later Theodora and Irene with such beauty, gentleness and honesty that later, when men and women are touching it is never
perceived as sexual - rather compassion.
One of the most beautiful of images occurs during Septimius' aria "Descend kind pity, heavenly guest." Sellars has created a pas de deux between the two soldiers Croft alone singing, imploring heaven's pity. At the downward scale sung on the word "descend" Didymus' arms repeat a falling motion finally encircling Septimius. When Septimius faces up and sees his fellow soldier he is startled, profoundly touched, wiping tears from his eyes. We witness a bonding deeper than either foreshadowing the compassion and highlighting the similarities between these two different men. It doesn't hurt that Croft sings with the most ravishing tone one is likely to ever encounter in this role.
Late his bravura aria "Dread the fruits of Christian folly" lets him sing what may be the fastest coloratura I've heard a tenor execute. His performance, as well as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson are the highlights of this extraordinarily beautiful evening.
Of Ms. Hunt, all I can ask is: has there EVER been a better singer of this type of music? Her Irene is simply an overwhelmingly powerful presence. Sellars has cast Irene as the leader of the Christian sect to which Theodora belongs. She is obviously and passionately devoted to her congregation and it is clear this community would follow her to the ends of the world. Irene has some of the best music in "Theodora" and Hunt sings
it with such passion and aching beauty, nowhere (for me)more than in "As with rosey steps the morn. This is one of Handel's most exquisitely beautiful arias and Hunt's singing of this is simply ravishing. She is up to big coloratura work in "Bain of Virtues" and her ornamentation in the di capo is thrilling stuff.
Dawn Upshaw's Theodora is one of the best things she's ever done. The image of her, in simple white, rising from her chair at what looks like a prayer meeting is a stunning image as she begins her aria "Fond flattering world adieu." Her voice was built for this type of slow Handel aria. Sellars gives her some of the grandest arm/hand gestures of
the cast and Upshaw's execution of them was believable - never once looking artificial, rather as if merely another extension of the music. "Angels ever bright and fair" provides another stunning visual moment - when Septimius, with his soldiers, reluctantly but dutifully leads her away to "that vile place." The arresting image of Theodora in virginal white, and the soldiers in their orange riot gear is hard to forget.
The prison scene, a darkened stage with a large yellow square representing her cell finds Theodora in a red bathrobe over a white slip. Upshaw's movements become Martha Grahams all tortured angles and match the coloring of her singing. Foregoing her typical pure sound Upshaw is unafraid to emit painful, frightened sobs and frenzied hyperventilating, unifying physical and vocal performance into a dramatic whole. The image of her on the floor, palms and feet extending upward, robe barely wrapped around her magnificently projects the image of a renaissance saint ascending to heaven.
William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Glyndebourne chorus are completely "on" throughout the entire performance. I cannot recommend this videotape highly enough. What lucky audiences Glyndebourne had for this magical production. A wonderful achievement by all involved.
Oratorio as Opera Seria: Bold, Brilliant and Beautiful
Brian J Hay | Sarnia, Ontario Canada | 08/29/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This one rattled the purists a little. Director Peter Sellars moved the story George Frideric Handel's Oratorio Theodora from ancient Rome to modern day America and made an opera out of it. That was a bold move. An Oratorio is basically a choral concert with soloists. This is anything but. It worked though. The work is about oppression, its causes and the effect on people on both sides. The staging enhances the drama and themes are always clear.
Valens' actions make his nature obvious. He's a small and vindictive shell determined to beat the world into believing he's more. The actions of Septimius and Didymus make it clear their loyalty to their nation stands in contrast with their contempt for Valens' cruelty. Theodora, Irene, and Didymus stand as people liberated by their choices. The music, the staging, and the people cast in their respective roles keep all this as clear as crystal. Frode Olsen's portrayal of the despot Valens is so concise that it was hard to rate his performance objectively. Tall, handsome and charismatic, he ends up being the perfect charlatan with no substance. His drunken tirade at the beginning of the second act is fabulous. Tenor Richard Croft excels as Septimius, the weaker willed of the two centurions. His portrayal is thought provoking to the point where it forces the viewer to question what he or she would do in a similar circumstance. Countertenor David Daniels is marvellous in the role of Didymus. His character is strong but gentle. It's something he conveys well, both with his body language and his singing. Dawn Upshaw is brilliant as Theodora. Like Didymus, her character is an example of the strongest being the most generous of spirit. Theodora is brave but though oppressed wishes harm to none. Dawn Upshaw has an inherently gentle quality in her voice. It suits this character well. She's a terrific actress as well, one who appears to feel everything she conveys. The one who stands above everyone else however is Lorraine Hunt. This lady is phenomenal. Her voice is full and strong in all ranges. Her 'mezzo' notes are deep and broad. Her high notes soar across the heavens. Her passion is magnificent. She lives every note she sings. Her performance here stands as one of the best I've seen in any genre. If her performance of "To Thee" at the beginning of Act III doesn't melt and rend your heart you haven't got one.
Handel was proud of this work. He felt it was his best. This performance of it makes a strong case for that sentiment. William Christie's tempi combine the best elements of the grace and strength in the music. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gives all that could be asked and more. Their playing is impeccable. The singing, as stated already, is fabulous.
The only complaint with this DVD lies with its chapter breakdowns. The menu is limited. Scenes rather than individual numbers divide the work. There's also only one audio track. These are small complaints though. The odd chapter divisions are a small price to pay for this performance. The audio track (two channel Dolby) is exceptional. Everything is crystal clear. This truly is the next best thing to seeing it live.
I first ran into "Theodora" about a dozen years ago. Like many I knew "Messiah" and some of the other favourites but knew nothing of the piece. An ad about a complete recording with a notation about this being Handel's "favourite of his works" caught my eye and after that a little voice wouldn't quit. It was the McGegan recording (which also featured Lorraine Hunt, that time as Theodora) and I bought it without having heard a note. It was a good decision. The beauty of this music is indescribable. Handel must have put every good idea he had and all his effort into it. "Messiah" may be the most famous (and that fame isn't unwarranted), but, for the best from Handel, this may be the place to go.
To err is Sellars, although the singing is divine...
Ingrid Heyn | Melbourne, Australia | 12/29/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)
"You will find the reviewers for this DVD enormously enthusiastic for both the singing and the staging. I concur absolutely insofar as the singing is concerned, but the staging...?
Let me get the negative aspect of this review over with first. For me, this performance failed to work in spite of some extremely moving moments, BECAUSE of the dreadful staging. Not only did I loathe the idea of updating this oratorio to a modern American setting, but the gestures set by Sellars were unbelievable. The setting frankly doesn't make sense in terms of the libretto and the driving motivations of the characters. Handel's opera is not really about political oppression. Some people are apt to combine religious persecution and political oppression into one handy container, but that doesn't always work. "Theodora" is an oratorio, and a religious one at that. It's unequivocally religious in nature, and of all of Handel's oratorios this is the one that most resembles a mediæval miracle play. By this, I mean it focuses specifically upon the life of a saint who is captured, tortured, and ultimately killed for her faith. The oratorio is about the capture, torture, and execution of Christians, where the glory and uplifting nature is those saints' triumph in adversity. Again, I stress that it's religious persecution, not political, which is the centre of this dramatic oratorio, but Sellars largely ignores this to put his own spin on the setting. A modern American setting clearly doesn't provide the same - or even an apt - dramatic framework. Am I the only person who finds Sellars' way of cramming a work into a mold of his making tedious?
Picture, if you will, repeated arm movements of rigid clumsiness, coke cans, silly attempts to make the music "relevant" by using modern gimmicks or situations... The semaphoric gesturing was tedious and ludicrous. I was reminded of nothing so much as kindergarten children making hammy gestures to a performance of "Do the hokey-pokey". All kudos to the wonderful cast who did their best with it all, but Peter Sellars is clearly so busy being Peter-Sellars-the-avant-garde-director that he doesn't pay attention to what the music or plot are really demanding in terms of staging.
A modern setting might have worked - but not this one.
And it is bizarre that works which were DESIGNED and COMPOSED to be performed within a particular range of settings (there's plenty of room for innovation within those ranges, and yes, one can push the boundaries somewhat... sometimes...) are now being consistently "modernised", while the fever for movies set in ancient or fantastical times (Lord of the Rings; Troy; King Arthur; to name but a few) has never been higher. I ask myself why intelligent and creative directors aren't taking more advantage of this, and creating lush and ancient settings for these terrific oratorios and operas to give them precisely the fantastical ambience which would work so well with the music and be so visually appealing to audiences...
As I mentioned above, there were some moments in the DVD that were lovely. The wonderful Lorraine Hunt was outstanding in her role, and whenever she sang, Sellars seems to have had the sense to let her portray it quite simply, using mostly the tension of her body and her intense facial expressions to convey the vividness of what she sings.
It is with far more pleasure that I comment upon the singing and the glorious playing of the orchestra (wonderfully conducted by William Christie). Almost without flaw, the cast did a superb job with the music. David Daniels is a remarkable countertenor living up to all the promise of his earlier roles, and the sheer beauty of his voice is sure to win more and more fans. His is a mellow sound of great power, unusual for counter-tenors. Richard Croft is undoubtedly one of the finest tenors in the world, and both in slow arias requiring delicate spin and faster arias requiring fiendish control over the coloratura, he displays such mastery and beauty of tone that it is enough to make any listener weep with pleasure. Lorraine Hunt, as I've mentioned, is fabulous - she's singing in a wonderful tessitura in this role as Irene, and it gives her the chance to display the honey-laden texture of her voice as well as extraordinary sympathy for the emotions of this role. Utterly, utterly convincing...
Not so convincing is Dawn Upshaw. I found her... adequate, but not wonderful. This has been true for much of her work - those who are her fans will of course disagree with me. But I've never enjoyed her Handel or Mozart much. I always feel as if there are aspects, both vocally and stylistically, which elude her when it comes to classical and baroque period music. She's so very good in more modern music (her Messiaen is just ravishing! and Debussy brings out some wonderful things in her singing) that I wonder whether she's focused much more strongly on getting to the centre of such styles and worked much more upon burnishing her vocal powers to suit the more modern repertoire than upon finding the right timbre and vocal approach to Handel, Mozart, etc.
To hear exactly what I mean, listen to the unutterably glorious recording of this oratorio conducted by Paul McCreesh, in which Paul Agnew delights to the nth point of ravishment with his Septimius, Valens is superbly sung by Neal Davies, Didymus receives unutterably lovely singing by Robin Blaze, Susan Bickley does a good job (although admittedly not as fine as Lorraine Hunt) with Irene, and the almost unbearably superb Susan Gritton sings with enough vocal beauty and wonderful Handelian style to guarantee her a place in heaven. THERE... there we have the exact tone required to make "Angels ever bright and fair" come to exquisite life. There isn't a tone out of place. This indeed is singing of a high order, and I can without equivocation recommend the recording (Archiv 469 061-2).
In general, regarding this DVD, I can strongly recommend the singing. I would love to see a staging that is more respectful of the baroque music and isn't so silly... but the cast of this DVD would be difficult to better, except in the case of the Theodora herself.
Do be prepared, if you purchase this DVD, to watch it in several stages. Trying to watch all the way through may leave you, as it did me, exhausted by the lack of imaginative and appropriate staging and all those nursery-style arm movements."
Jory Vinikour | Paris, France | 02/05/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Those who have provided some very negative critiques, based solely on the staging might do well to remember that this English oratorio, performed three or so times during Handel's lifetime, was never intended for staged performance. So, Peter Sellars has created a brilliant analogy with issues that we all currently face. Tolerance in the face of differing beliefs, more than proselytism, seems to fuel Sellar's powerful take on martyrdom. The choreographed gestures, not so dreadfully unrelated to the codified gestures that made up 17th and 18th century theater and oratory technique are riveting. The minimalist set, five Roman tear bottles (human-sized, of course) are wonderfully lit.
On to the singing. Here, we are in the realm of the finest Handel ever committed to recorded form. Dawn Upshaw, in the title role, can seem rather mannered vocally (a bit of Broadway creeps in now and again), but is admirably engaged and moving. David Daniels is beyond any reasonable doubt the finest counter-tenor in the relatively brief history of the art. His breath control is one of the finest of any singer today, and the sheer, silvery beauty of the voice in all of its registers should convert (bad choice of words?) any doubters. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson packs an emotional wallop that will not soon be forgotten. Her incarnation of this early Christian Church leader is amoungst he most fully inhabited performances ever to be seen from an operatic performer. Her voice is astoundingly powerful, yet agile. As certain online critics have rightly said, Richard Croft is beyond wonderful as the non-believing, but righteous, soldier, Septimius. The purity of his voice brings tears to my eyes. His version of "From Virtue Springs" is the finest thing I have ever heard from a Handelian tenor. Dramatically, his intensity is nearly painful. Finally, Frode Olsen makes a dandy basso-villain, and manages tto bring just the right glimmer of menace, with a small touch of humanity shining through.
I do wish that the tracking would follow the pieces in the work. That is a fairly minor complaint, as this is a beautifully filmed production. Highly recommended..."