Theodora was Handel’s penultimate oratorio and his least successful. The London premiere came in March of 1750, but the work closed after just three performances. English language sung dramas—oratorios—had enriched Handel in the period from Messiah in 1742 to Theodora, but the latter was a flop. Yet Handel believed that Theodora inspired him to his greatest chorus, “He saw the lovely youth,” surpassing even “Hallejuah” in his own mind. With his eyesight failing, Handel created a hymn of resurrection, moving from despairing darkness to resplendent light.
The work’s commercial failure surely had to do with the subject matter: the piece concludes with the execution of a pair of Christian martyrs as decreed by the unforgiving President of Roman Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey), Valens. This gloomy ending did not make for the rousing good time desired and expected by many of Handel’s patrons, more than a few of whom had anyway fled London a few days earlier when an earthquake had rocked the city. God, it must have seemed to some, was displeased with these religious entertainments that appropriated churchly themes and texts for the theatre, and for the monetary gain of the composer and his star singers, first among them the male castrato, Gaetano Guadagni who sang the role of the Roman soldier, Didymus, who converted to Christianity. Guadagni was an Italian, a catholic, and a “eunuch,” as English detractors of these foreign imports viciously put it. Little wonder they thought that disasters threatened Babylon Britain.
The work lay largely ignored in its archival vault for nearly 250 years, until revived in all its glory, both luminous and dark, in a fully-staged production at the Glyndebourne Opera in 1996. Though some, including Handel’s first biographer, Cambridge theologian John Mainwaring, believed that the oratorios would convey their moral and dramatic message far more forcefully with the aid of costumes, sets, and acting, all this was forbidden by clerical authority and discouraged by religious decorum in eighteenth-century London. Handel never revived the work.
For its first-ever Handel performance, Glyndebourne chose, not an opera, but this neglected oratorio: an inspired, uplifting, harrowing choice. The production set the work’s diverse, always compelling, profound, festive, melancholic transcendent music in present day America, the President ruling over not Antioch but the United States, where the Supreme Court had overturned the ban on capital punishment twenty years earlier. The meticulously enacted executions at the close took place in a Texas military hospital. The world was in-between Texan Bush administrations. That devotee of the death penalty, Bill Clinton, was in the Oval Office.
The stage director for the Glyndebourne revival was Peter Sellars, vilified by some who believe his politically and morally charged productions deface the artistic intentions inhering in the original. Strict-constructionist opera lovers like the late Antonin Scalia, loathe this kind of thing.
I’ve been captivated by many of Sellars’ productions, watching them at home, but have seen only one live: L. A. Opera’s 1995 staging of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande which took place during the O. J. Simpson trial then being conducted a few blocks away from the company’s home in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The Black bass-baritone Willard White sang the role of the murderous King Golaud. A Ford Bronco was parked at the front of the stage next to the royal palace—a modernist beachfront mansion in Malibu. Squads from the LAPD occasionally stormed in or lurked in the shadows. The allusions were clear, and though some critics decried Sellars’ interventions in the libretto, it was compelling, current theatre. Legion are Sellars’ challenging and important operatic engagements: his 2017 Salzburg Festival reimagining of Mozart’s drama of Imperial Rome, La Clemenza di Tito, had the eponymous emperor and Roman elite played by people of color facing an influx of white refugees.
Among Sellars’ most celebrated/notorious effort was his 1988 production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro set in Trump Tower, that building then just five years old. It’s a location that stands again centerstage. Sellars’ vision brilliantly anticipated the later political theatricality of Donald Trump playing the part of Donald Trump in the set he had built for himself.
The Glyndebourne production of Theodora has an unnamed American president pulling the levers of state violence. But in the orangish-red-haired person of Norwegian bass-baritone Frode Olsen one can’t help but see Trump, even if the singer is more handsome.
Handel’s genius makes possible this startling transposition from 1750—and from 1996—to now. It’s not just that music of such creativity and craft transcends its time. It’s also that great theater—now so often captured on film and increasingly easily to pull up on screens large and small—can, and should, continue to captivate and provoke. As Sellars put it in a 2012 interview in the Guardian about the Glyndebourne Theodora: “Visionary works such as this wait for another era in which they are allowed to speak in their own language and do not have to ventriloquise the conventional wisdom of the day.”
Olsen is powerful and nuanced both as a singer and as an actor, pulling off the comic, yet menacing stagey-ness of this transformed Handelian President in the oratorio’s first scene, as well as the darker impulses of his final meting out of justice.
His Valens gets both the opening and closing aria of the oratorio’s first scene, both of which lead directly into rousing choruses of the kind that made most of the composer’s oratorios such big hits. At the opening, Sellars places Valens at the podium for a press conference in which he informs the pliant, adoring ranks of Coke-drinking, White House journalists—and, crucially, the television cameras—that all those (he means Christians) not joining in the revels marking Diocletian’s birthday will be put to death.
In the first aria (starts at 8:11 in the video) Valens sends his soldiers off to proclaim his ruling. The rising, exuberant strains of the music conjure the incense ascending to mighty Jove. The journalists applaud and spring from their chairs like well-drilled troops, the trumpet and timpani blast urging them on to a charging fugue.
The audience (however small in 1750) has gotten its money’s worth within the first few minutes of the musical action.
The second of these two interlocking first-scene numbers comes after one of Valens’s soldiers, Didymus, suggests that his mortal proclamation is too harsh, that tolerance should prevail instead. The President brooks no dissent and launches into a jubilantly mean-spirited number that takes up the instruments of torture and death laid out in the libretto of Handel’s frequent collaborator Thomas Morell, a clergyman and bad poet:
Handel brandishes each deadly implement in a slashing, single pitch, before giving vent to the President’s “vengeful Ire” in a gleefully sinister melisma. Midway through the aria, the music slows and lurches, as if Valens were enthralled by his own grim repressions. But no, he’s having a medical incident. He staggers from the podium and his nearby medical team rushes in. The stricken President sings the da capo sprawled on the gurney, his voice resounding between bouts of CPR, snatches of administered oxygen, and life-saving injections.
Just before the aria’s final flourish he jumps up—a “miraculous” recovery from this staged heart attack that now counts as a quicker version of Trump’s own mock-heroic defeat of Covid. The Antioch/American press corps joins him in the rollicking chorus that thrills in the future cries of the agonized and dying Christians, strains “sweeter than the Trumpet’s Sound”—that instrument soaring above the fray like an F-35.
The President finds himself in fine comic fettle in the drunken orgy that opens the second act (1:27:09), and in the third we dismay at his grim resolve, so remorseless that he’s even able to resist the irresistible power of Handel’s plea in a late aria sung by the chief military man, Septimius, a conflicted voice of compassion and duty.
For now (go to 3:00:43), though, let’s find him busy with his pen (not) pardoning people. Uncannily, Sellars—as if seeing a quarter century into the future—puts the current, frantic President at his desk manically wielding his powers.
Twenty-five years on, Olsen is still on stage and in outstanding form. Just last year at the Dutch National Opera he sang the role of Hamm in György Kurtág’s operatic setting of Samuel Beckett’s End Game. Wheelchair-bound, hilariously humorless, in every way unyielding and stuck in his own infinite regression, Olsen’s Hamm gifts us another vision of the future ex-president.
Too bad Trump can’t sing like Olsen. It might make him—and us—feel better, and worse, at the same time.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at email@example.com.)