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Issue Date:  January 28, 2005

A glorious voice captures a saint's struggle in 'Theodora'

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson spellbinds audience in Handel's oratorio


When George Frideric Handel’s penultimate oratorio, “Theodora,” premiered on March 16, 1750, it already held a special place in his own heart -- but its attaining only three performances to scant crowds was not a surprise. Three hours of solemn music and a plot in which a fourth-century Christian martyr, beset by the Diocletian persecutions, chooses faith and death over life don’t often add up to a box-office smash. “The Jews will not come because it is a Christian story,” Handel concluded, “and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one.”

And yet, after two and a half centuries “Theodora” has advanced from being one of the least-performed of Handel’s nearly 60 oratorios and operas to a welcome presence onstage and in record stores. There are various reasons for this change, including the eagerness with which musicians and listeners have exhumed works from music’s distant past, but the greatest reason is we have performing today a singer who has revealed the magnificence of not one but two of the principal roles in “Theodora.”

A few seasons ago, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson stood on the stage at Carnegie Hall before an audience largely unfamiliar with her. But once she finished Theodora’s radiant plea, “Angels, ever bright and fair,” the crowd converted. Whispers of “Who is she?” raced through the hall; later that night Tower Records sold multiple copies of Ms. Lieberson’s CDs. After more recordings and superb appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, the American singer is finally being recognized and applauded. For starters, her voice is strong and expansive enough to resist conventional classifications: Charged with the depths and resonance of a mezzo-soprano (or even a contralto), the sound also has the pealing clarity of a soprano. (She is sometimes billed as one, the other or both.) Early training as a violist can be heard in her technical mastery and flexibility. She is an actress and interpreter who brings an astonishing emotional wisdom to all music; admirers salute the “bravery” and “passion” of her work. And she has demonstrated how the great Baroque opera roles of the 17th and 18th centuries can be rendered with a power that makes any notion of antiquity ridiculous. Ms. Lieberson as Medée in Charpentier’s 300-year-old masterpiece or as Dido in Purcell’s “Dido and Anaeas” (just as old) is as vivid as any contemporary great singer assaying the newest music. The last American of whom this could be said was Maria Callas.

All these talents are perfectly realized in several “Theodora” recordings. Many of her admirers first heard Ms. Lieberson (before her marriage she was billed as Lorraine Hunt) as Theodora in a 1991 recording conducted by the British Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi 907060.62). In a voice almost golden with youth, freshness and faith, she prays with her fellow outlawed Christians before being arrested by Romans. In the second act, Theodora struggles to resist despair while in prison; presented with a chance for escape, her urge to bear witness to God battles impulses toward survival. Devotion wins when Theodora and the Roman soldier who adores her willingly submit to execution. Her faithful companion, Irene, sings, “Their Doom is past and they are gone / To prove, that Love is stronger far than Death,” after which she and her chorus of believers sing a rousing chorus in finale.

It’s no exaggeration to admit that this story is not an easy sell to a post-Christian culture. But Handel believed every word of the libretto, even when its language falters into preachiness, and set to those words some of his most overwhelming music. Once, when complimented for his “Hallelujah!” chorus in “Messiah,” the composer replied that some of the music in “Theodora” was greater. Hearing Ms. Lieberson sing this work, you understand why Handel valued it so. Without overdoing histrionics, without reaching for easy sentimentality or piousness, her Theodora -- who in other hands can seem something of a goody-goody -- becomes that rarest apparition, a saint, a person emblazoned by the presence of God.

Five years after recording the title role, Ms. Lieberson appeared at Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera in the work’s other female part, Irene. The sensation she caused can be experienced via a DVD of “Theodora” (Kultur D2099). Directed by Peter Sellars, perfectly conducted by William Christie and performed by a dream of a cast (Dawn Upshaw, David Daniels, Frode Olsen and Richard Croft join Ms. Lieberson), everyone brings the same conviction to the work that Ms. Lieberson first revealed. Mr. Sellars imagines the two female roles as representing different branches of Christianity: Theodora, in white, is the mystic, often still in the repose of revelation; Irene, in black, is a charismatic, alive with gestures animated by religious renewal. Ms. Lieberson brings dignity and transparence to Irene’s role as a commentator on the religious issues propelling the drama.

Last fall an independent label, Avie, released a CD of Ms. Lieberson singing arias from the oratorio as well as selections from Handel’s opera “Xerxes” (including the famous “Largo”) and his dramatic cantata “La Lucrezia.” Ms. Lieberson’s newest renderings of Irene’s music are even more deeply moving than those on the video. To hear Ms. Lieberson’s voice serenely glide through “As with rosy steps the morn,” as Irene comforts her fellow Christians, is at once a gorgeous musical experience and a humbling spiritual one. Handel’s “Theodora,” and Ms. Lieberson’s triumphant exploration of its message, remind us that great religion and great art used to be indispensable to each other -- and perhaps should be still.

Patrick Giles is a freelance writer in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2005

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