(Theodora) Julia Bullock, ROH Theodora 2022, © Camilla Greenwell

Theodora: an over-fussy feminist failure

With productions this bad, it is no surprise that nobody cares about opera

Artillery Row On Opera

Despite Covent Garden’s best (but still quarter-arsed) efforts to turn this production of Handel’s late work into a fuck-the-patriarchy media sensation — coy spoilers, titillating drip-fed news of intimacy advisers, and glib interviews proposing Katie Mitchell’s staging as a radical feminist redemption of a misogynist tract — an event that should really have lit London up like a cultural Catherine wheel stayed resolutely beneath the radar, unnoticed by anyone much other than its few thousand attendees over six nights. Well, it is opera’s own fault that it remains so marginal, forever failing to make the case for these old things in the way that the Shakespeare, Rubens and Wren gangs, for example, seem to have so little trouble with. 

The sadness is that opera is by so far the best art form for addressing vital matters, and has such a lavish armoury (texts like this, plus the entire panoply of music, theatre and visual imagination) to do it with, yet it always feels as though a wider public is being deliberately kept away. Then again, were that wider public to see the pig’s ear productions like this make of addressing those issues, they would probably be so outraged they’d close down the whole shebang. So maybe it’s good after all.

Theodora, premiered at Covent Garden in 1750 when Handel was 65, is the closest he came to writing a Passion in the J.S. Bach mode, though in fact it deals with a bad day in the life of a Christian princess in 4th-century Antioch, whose stubborn purity so annoys the Roman governor that, while condemning her fellow heretics to death, he devises a fate-worse-than for her, consigning her to the soldiers’ brothel. Rescued (still intacta) by her chaste admirer Didymus, Theodora is then executed alongside him — a martyrdom she embraces with joy and some relief.

No Messiah-style sparklers here: Handel tells his story in music of distilled sobriety, limiting his sonic and tonal range so far that the smallest gesture — a single repeated high flute note, a violin flash in an upper octave, a tiny re-engineering of the standard aria form — creates a sort of electric shock: this is the real late-style, pared-down essence of music. The string-based sound cradles songs that burrow ever deeper into faith, hope, despair, sympathy, love.

It is hard to see what Katie Mitchell’s aim was

Handel also, by the way, does a cute thing with the words of Thomas Morell, one of those impeccably Enlightened 18th-century Anglican priests: usually in these texts the oppressed minority (Christian or Jewish) represents England, dauntlessly alone, battling surrounding Catholics and Fascists — a handy feelgood tonic for a country in slow recovery from a century of Stuart-generated catastrophe. Handel, turning the badass Romans into rather jolly roisterers, suggests we are more like them, not the dowdy, prissy, death-devoted sectarians: and that our humanity is predicated on how we treat those irritating outsiders. (This may still be of some use.)

I deliver this little sermon only because inevitably there was no hint of it in Mitchell’s staging. Her aim, it seems, was to — well, what? Whinge about provincial Roman jurisprudence, maybe. Determined to restore “agency” to Theodora (passive spiritual resistance not being enough unless you’re Gandhi, I guess), Mitchell thought it would be a good idea to have her building bombs — no, I assure you — in the kitchen of the contemporary “Roman embassy” somewhere, where she and her fellow Christians all seemed to work.

A lot of fussy detail aimed at some kind of cine-realism merely encouraged thoughts of how badly that floor was being mopped, how poorly polished the glasses, whether they ever actually made any food there, even whether that bomb was likely to work. They did this kind of thing much better and less pretentiously in the old days, with the admittedly very silly kneading of “real dough” in the Café Momus scene of John Copley’s fossilised old production of La bohème. No bombs, though.

(Theodora) Julia Bullock, ROH Theodora 2022, © Camilla Greenwell

Beyond that exceptionally stupid and alienating decision, and despite the gyrations of a couple of clinically accomplished pole-dancers in the embassy’s shag-room, Mitchell had little to add. The Roman governor — soz, ambassador — behaved badly, his lieutenant Septimius was turned from a tormented ally and advocate for mercy into a regular old groper, and a hilarious giveaway split-screen moment had one roomful of women nurturing and comforting each other while in the other, horrid men posed with guns and did mean things. 

A terrible fear gradually seized me that Mitchell was actually making a joke — not something you sense comes naturally. More gun-waving standoffs than you could count channelled a certain kind of movie, as did all the slo-mo action, fashionable for a while now in opera (well, baroque arias are long, and you have to fill up the time somehow). In the most rapt chorus – as the frightened Christians comfort each other with the gospel story of Jesus resurrecting the widow’s son — more split-screen fun gave us Didymus (now wearing Theodora’s cathouse kit, for complicated reasons) getting some pole-dancing tips from a pro: “the youth begins to rise”, see?

There was a general roughness of tone, intonation troubles, a waywardness with the musical line

Best was reserved for last, as the rewritten ending had Theo emerging from her botched execution to variously shoot and garrotte her tormentors, a sort of hommage to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Next time Mitchell stages Bach’s St Matthew Passion, let’s hope we can look forward to Christ leaping off the cross and wasting those mofos Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas… now that I’d pay for.

Going against the text and music — or “ironic juxtaposition” — is absolutely standard in opera, of course, and properly done can wonderfully free the imagination from infantile bonds of literalism. Or, as here, it can fill you with something like contempt. Theodora is not one of those salacious 19th-century torture-the-women texts, but an intensely sympathetic contemplation of suffering and the working of grace, devoted to seeing the world through women’s eyes. The main character is not Theodora but her friend Irene, whose reactions of rage, perplexity and finally acceptance, and her role as comforter-in-chief to the bereft Christians, make it the kill-for role for a soulful mezzo. 

Despite everything, the music of course “worked” — played with warmth and variety by the orchestra conducted by Harry Bicket, not over-solemn but never allowed off the leash (sad: those rollicking Roman choruses can be a lot of fun). This looked a dream cast, but frankly they weren’t in the best form by the fourth night — which doesn’t seem very professional. Julia Bullock, Joyce DiDonato, Jakub Józef Orliński and Ed Lyon could never be bad, but there was a general roughness of tone, intonation troubles, a waywardness with the musical line that was genuinely odd; perhaps their minds were distracted with all that mopping.

But still. It is impossible to listen to pieces like Septimius’s “Descend, kind pity”, Theodora’s confinement scene or radiant duets with Didymus, or any of Irene’s songs, without being moved beyond words: it is music whose power to transport and to incarnate the things it talks about is a miracle, old, blind Handel vividly seeing emotional and political truths and expressing them (like Mozart) through music whose true purpose was to educate and prepare the European mind for the end of autocracy, the birth of a world of moral responsibility. Now might seem a particularly good time for a reminder of that. That they don’t think so at Covent Garden might go some way to explaining why nobody gives a shit about opera.

Theodora was showing at the Royal Opera House from 31 January to 16th February. 

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