Theodora – Théâtre des Champs Elysées

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Theodora2_logoDear all, last weekend I went to Paris to see Theodora, by Haendel, and I also saw a concert by the countertenor Franco Fagioli, so today you get 2 reviews for the price of 1!

Franco Fagioli – Venice Baroque Orchestra

Recital

I usually don’t travel just for a concert, but I was in Paris, I found a ticket (sold in front of the theatre), and then, honestly, I have been thinking about listening to this Franco Fagioli, who is one of the most talked about countertenors alive. The program included Vivaldi, Haendel, Veracini, Geminiani.

The Venice Baroque Orchestra, English name, notwithstanding the Italian origin, was extremely convincing. They have the precision and the discipline of the best original instrument orchestras, together with an enthralling spirit and a passion. The concert La Follia, by Geminiani (a series of variation on a theme by Corelly) was delivered with extraordinary bravura, with ovations for the first cello, who really gave an amazing performance (it’s not exactly a cello, it is that grandfather of the cello which doesn’t touch the ground).

Enter stage Franco Fagioli, he opens his mouth, and I almost scream “Cecilia Bartoli!”. A very similar timbre, and the same technique, the same attention to interpretation.

Also the same faults, if you please: he makes even more grimaces than our beloved Cecilia, and his voice is certainly not huge. Very, very talented, his performance is gripping; I appreciated him especially in Haendel, where, in Scherza infida (from Ariodante), he gave a heart-breaking interpretation. As an encore, he gave us Crude furie from Serse, with all the required fireworks, and a close of the aria with heel dance steps, flamenco style, olé! (see video). I would really hear him in a full opera, and see how he pulls it off.

Theodora

The next evening, in the same theatre, I saw Theodora, an oratorio by Haendel, in scenic form.

I have been in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées before, to see Rossini’s Otello, last year: it is one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve ever seen, an Art Deco jewel, and it is kind of old fashioned. The ushers take every single person to their seat, and kind of expect a little tip for it. Charming. (Last year I marched into the theatre like a tank, dismissing the ushers with annoyed gestures, a gigantic faux pas.)
Orchestra and Chorus Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie! What genius, what an orchestra, what sound, what precision, what a chorus!!! They are wonderful, Christie kept everybody together with incredible authority and musical knowledge. The chorus and orchestra were amazing, better than all the soloists put together, I must say. It was the first performance, and it was obvious: a bit of nerves; Christie in particular was really annoyed by the open stage applause, a couple of times he turned around with fiery eyes towards the audience, or tried to shut them up gesturing with his hands. I understand him, but it would have been better to announce “please no applause until the curtain comes down” or something.

Theodora is an oratorio, the story of an aristocratic woman in the 400 a.D., in Anthiochia, who converts to Christianity. She refuses to sacrifice to the pagan gods in honor of the emperor Diocletian, and is sentenced to serve as a “sacred prostitute” in the temple of Venus. The Roman soldier Dydimus, also secretly a Christian, and in love with her, runs to the rescue: goes into the brothel pretending to be a customer, and gives her his clothes so that she can escape. He is found and sentenced to death, she comes back “no! kill me instead!” and they are both executed as Christian martyrs.

The production, I don’t even want to talk about. I must say that, even if it was absurdly set in modern times, it was done in a way that didn’t interfere with the music. A comparison with Saul, which I saw like 6 weeks ago in Glyndebourne, comes natural: both are Haendel’s oratorios, both with incredibly difficult choral parts. In this case, opposed to what happened in Saul, the crazy mise en scene did not ruin the music; albeit the chorus had to participate in a full-fledged orgy, they were always in a position that allowed them to sing perfectly, and the choruses were performed with wonderful precision. The orgy, by the way, was more funny than vulgar; I will spare you the details, but overall it was solved with some wit and intelligence (intelligence, after the idiocy of having an orgy in the first place, of course). The choruses of the Christians were incredibly moving and full of emotion. Overall, the oratorio is very “subdued” and emotionally charged, with the martyrdom of the two protagonists, and the faith that underpins it, coming out more intimate than heroic.

The reason I traveled all the way to Paris was Philippe Jaroussky, my favourite countertenor, in the role of Dydimus. I was not disappointed. He is fantastic, an amazing projection. His voice is powerful, full of “good” metal, and his coloratura is priceless. I love him! Great interpretation, very poetic: he looks like a young boy, and his character came out really like a sacrificial lamb, very moving in his martyrdom. It’s the second opera I see with him, and it’s the second time that they put him on stage in his underwear: his skinny legs don’t do him justice :-).

Theodora was Katherine Watson (soprano), and her friend Irene was Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mezzo-soprano). Very similar voices, round and smooth, a little “tame”, i.e. not rebellious, without peaks, with no edges. I liked d’Oustrac better, her voice has a more original timbre, but both were very good.

The other two main characters, the governor of Antiochia (Callum Thorpe, bass) and the head of the Roman garrison (Kresimir Spicer, tenor) were amazing! How many good singers are there in the world?! I had never heard of them at all, you should hear what voices! the tenor screamed a little on the high notes, but his coloratura and his confidence were incredible.

Overall, a wonderful gem of the baroque!

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