Handel’s Theodora, Sellars’s 1996 Ritualization, and the Efficacy of Staging an Oratorio
By: Zen Kuriyama
George Frideric Handel is well known for his oratorios; classical music as we know it would be a different place without Messiah. However, very few know of his oratorio Theodora, which has a far-less-than glamorous reputation amongst the rest of Handel’s oratorio oeuvre. Theodora—the oratorio of which Handel was most proud—centers on the Christian martyr, Theodora, and her Roman lover, Didymus, who is a convert to Christianity.1 The 1750 Covent Garden premiere was not a success, and the oratorio met similarly with unfavorable reactions at subsequent performances. In 1996, Glyndebourne presented a fully-staged version, directed by Peter Sellars and with William Christie leading the orchestra from the continuo. It was an immediate success. Starring Dawn Upshaw, David Daniels, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, this production of Theodora reversed the critical fortune of this little-known and often-demeaned oratorio. In addition to dissecting the work’s critical reception from its 1750 London premiere through the most recent 2010 ritualization, this paper will also delve into the efficacy of staging oratorios. I will focus on the ritualization of three arias from the 1996 Glyndebourne production: ‘As with rosy steps the morn,’ ‘Angels, ever bright and fair,’ and ‘Lord, to Thee each night and day.’ In this analysis, I will address how audience members draw aesthetic pleasure and religious relevance from stagings that are rich with symbolism, and how affect and performativity actively target an audience’s emotions. Theodora—with an English libretto by Thomas Morell2—is set in the fourth century A.D. It is comprised of three acts, and chronicles the persecution and martyrdom of Theodora, a devout Christian living in still-pagan Antioch, and Didymus, a Roman officer 1 Newman Flower, George Frideric Handel: His Personality and His Times (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 330. 2 Thomas Morell (1703-1784) was an English librettist, best known for providing the libretti to many of Handel’s oratorios including Judas Maccabaeus (1747), Joshua (1747), and Jephtha (1752).
who is a clandestine convert to Christianity. When the Roman governor of Antioch sentences all those who do not offer sacrifice to the pagan gods Venus and Flora to death, it is left to Didymus and another Roman officer to carry out the charge. Theodora is eventually seized, and the Roman governor gives her the choice to renounce her Christian faith, or be raped by Roman officers. When Theodora stands firm in her faith, Didymus comes to her cell in secret and trades places with her, begging Theodora to escape wearing his soldier’s uniform. Didymus is eventually captured and sentenced to death, and Theodora—bereft with guilt—offers her life to the Counsel instead of Didymus’s, but the Governor refuses. When Didymus is to be executed, Theodora enters and begs to die in his stead. In a moving display of earthly love and courage, Didymus and Theodora argue, with each determined to die in the other’s place. They are eventually both sentenced to death, and reconcile their grief by focusing on their faith, in the ultimate display of Christian martyrdom.3 In addition to a compelling storyline, Theodora contains some of Handel’s most compelling musical moments. The premiere of the work, however, was a failure. In 1948, Newman Flower wrote, “[Handel] ultimately declared that ‘He saw the lovely youth’ in Theodora—that later oratorio of ill-fortune—was the greatest chorus he ever wrote.”4 Flower continued, “Theodora from its inception was a failure, in spite of the fact that it contained a few of the most remarkable numbers of Handel’s composing.”5 This vague compliment was concretized by critic Paul Henry Lang, who noted “a spiritual serenity, a tranquility in facing 3 Saints Theodora and Didymus are venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, with their joint feast day celebrated on April 28. St. Ambrose, the fourth century bishop of Milan, wrote about their martyrdom. 4 Ibid., 301. 5 Ibid., 330.
a host of contradictions and assailing questions, and a preoccupation with the profundities of this life and of that to come.”6 If Theodora contains some of Handel’s most brilliant compositional moments, and has an affecting plot, why was it a “box-office disaster”?7 The first and most important reason is that Theodora is the only work that “deals with Christian dramatis personae, the story concerning itself with the vicissitudes of Christian persecution and the spiritual travails of the Christian martyrs.”8 Handel only composed two oratorios of a Christian nature, the other being Messiah. As Lang noted in 1966, however, Theodora is the only dramatic oratorio of Handel’s whose characters and storyline are Christian-centered and are descriptive about the suffering incurred to them by the nonChristian world. The middle of the eighteenth century saw increased tension between Jewish people in Great Britain and the predominantly Christian (Anglican) citizen base. In 1753, a bill was introduced to Parliament referred to as the “Jew Bill,” which “would make it possible for foreign Jews living in Britain to apply for naturalisation.”9 In addition to facing “increased opposition” within the Houses of Parliament, “vehement objections to it meanwhile developed outside Parliament,” leading to highly tense relations between Jews and non-Jews, and between those who supported the bill and those who did not.10 This led to what Thomas W. Perry referred to as a “violent politico-religious controversy” that
6 Paul Henry Lang, George Frideric Handel (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 486. 7 Ruth Smith, Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 346. 8 Lang, George Frideric Handel, 486. 9 Smith, Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought, 346. 10 Ibid., 347.
proved to be “an agitation…which has few parallels in English history.”11 As a result, one of the primary reasons for Theodora’s unfavorable reception was because—as Handel himself hinted at—“a substantial part of his oratorio audience was Jewish.”12 If crippling socioreligious tension was not enough, a large earthquake that hit London just days before affected the 1750 Covent Garden premiere. As Flower noted, “an earthquake—almost an unheard-of event in London—destroyed Theodora before it was produced…London forgot all else save the earthquakes. It forgot Handel. It forgot Theodora.”13 Given the genius of its composition, the reception of Theodora might have been drastically different if circumstances surrounding its premiere had not been marred by civil unrest and natural disasters. Theodora received only five other performances during Handel’s lifetime—the second being in 1755— and it seems to have been met with an equally unfavorable reception.14 Was Handel’s favorite oratorio doomed never to become a success?
A Modern Theodora 1996 saw the premiere of the now-famous Peter Sellars production of Theodora at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, which changed the landscape of this oratorio’s critical reception. Fully staged like an opera, the production was met with a “rapturous reception,” and this production has been hailed as “one of the best things he [Sellars] has ever put on
11 Thomas W. Perry, Public Opinion, Propaganda, and Politics: A Study of the Jew Bill of 1753 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 2-3. 12 Smith, Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought, 350. 13 Flower, George Frideric Handel: His Personality and His Traits, 332. 14 Jonathan Keates, Handel: The Man & His Music, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 291.
stage here [Glyndebourne] and the production…is already a classic.”15 The New York Times’s review of the production—by the exacting Henry Pleasants—was revelatory: No boos this time. The production was acclaimed by Friday’s first-night audience…Sellars manages all this [the staging] brilliantly, and with brilliant support from cast and chorus, and from Christie, conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, playing period instruments. While his setting is far from 18th-century London, not to mention fourth-century Syria, the action is never in conflict with the mood and pace of the music.16 Starring Dawn Upshaw as Theodora, David Daniels as Didymus, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Irene, this production served as a turning point in how directors approached mounting oratorios (or dramatic vocal works not intended to be staged) like an opera, what Peter Sellars calls a ritualization. Ritualizations of sacred vocal works—such as oratorios and Passions—have been a trademark of Sellars’s career, and is based on a concept largely rooted in engaging the audience and appealing to their own sense of ritual: Peter Sellars describes his manner of staging an oratorio as a ritualization, i.e., an emulation of a ritual. Rituals exist in all cultures and at all levels of human activity, from the highest to the prosaic. Rituals represent the values of a community by enacting them through several techniques of shared embodiment of said values, such as gesturalization, processionals, traditional music, and various symbolic representations through diverse artistic techniques. In actual rituals, these devices are repeated regularly over time during community celebrations, and in so doing, they 15 Martin Kettle, “Handel/Theodora.” "Reviews." The Guardian (1959-2003), Aug 06, 1997. 16 Henry Pleasants, “Handel Makes Debut at Glyndebourne,” The New York Times, May 1996.
reinforce the value system. In a classical music performance, Sellars aspires for the staging to gain the solemnity and depth of the meaning of a ritual through the artful choice of movement, gesture, blocking, costumes, etc., to reveal universal or at least central spiritual values or social issues he deems are embedded in the work.17
How effective have these ritualizations been? Why is the concept and execution of staging these sacred works so effective to the modern audience member? One answer might lie in the work’s spiritual component, and the transformative nature of the sacred. In the program notes for the highly-praised ritualization of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sellars writes: Bach wrote his masterpiece, the ‘St. Matthew’ Passion, not as a concert work, and not as a work of theater, but as a transformative ritual reaching across time and space, uniting disparate, and dispirited communities…The ritual ‘staging’ for these performances is primarily focused on Bach’s spatial imagination and the moral energies that his [rhetorical] dialogues and juxtapositions release. 18
The same principles Sellars uses to justify ritualizing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion can be applied to Handel’s Theodora. This same review mentions the 1996 Glyndebourne ritualization, specifically the dynamic talent that was the-late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: “Hunt-Lieberson’s supreme dramatic gifts inspired some of Sellars’ greatest work, including the iconic 1996 17 Carmen-Helena Téllez, “An Analysis of the Ritualization of J.S. Bach’s Matthäus-Passion by Peter Sellars and Simon Rattle: A Guide to the Appreciation of Interdisciplinary Presentations.” Lecture Handout, November 9, 2017, University of Notre Dame. 18 Jeffery Baxter, “Webcast review: Peter Sellars directs Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion with Berlin Philharmonic.” Arts Atlanta, 19 April 2010.
staging of Handel’s ‘Theodora’ at Glyndebourne, which is luckily preserved on video. Until this Berlin “St. Matthew” Passion performance , ‘Theodora’ was seen by many as Sellars’ most memorable production.”19 It is clear that a large part of the favorable critical reception of the 1996 Theodora ritualization was the strength of the cast, most notably Hunt Lieberson. Through the staging, Sellars was able to give Hunt Lieberson—who played Theodora’s pious friend Irene—a vehicle to use her extraordinary and intense dramatic ability in a way that would have not been possible in a concert rendition. Patrick Giles writes, “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.”20 Lieberson’s performance of “As with rosy steps the morn” is widely regarded as the most moving to have been recorded on film. Such is the beauty of the aria that Percy Young—in the entry for Theodora in his book The Oratorios of Handel—refers to it as, “the perfect artistic example of the by now almost superannuated ‘da capo’ form.”21 Yet, before Hunt Lieberson’s 1996 delivery, it remained an under-performed gem among the rest of Handel’s oeuvre. Once more, this proves how a ritualized presentation of an oratorio has the potential to affect an audience’s experience of the work. Wedding symbolic gesture and spiritual depth with the actors' dramatic gifts provides the audience with an accessible toolbox to reinterpret this Baroque vocal work. Given its depth and poignancy is it possible that Theodora’s mission cannot be accomplished through traditional performance means? It seems that ritualization 19 Ibid. 20 Patrick Giles, “A glorious voice captures a saint’s struggle in ‘Theodora.’” National Catholic Reporter, 28 January 2005. 21 Percy M. Young, The Oratorios of Handel (London: Dennis Dobson LTD, 1949), 188.
was necessary for Theodora’s success: “…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.”22 Staging oratorios place the action in the center of “performativity, presence, and liveness,” drawing upon audiences fascination with aesthetic and affective experiences.23 ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ is Irene’s aria of reassurance to her fellow worshipers, after the messenger’s delivery that death is awaiting Christians. In the 1996 Glyndebourne production, the Christian flock (the chorus) begin to flee, but Irene stays them in her recitative, ‘Ah! Whither should we fly, and fly from whom?’ In prophetic speech mirroring Mendelssohn’s Elijah in declamation,24 Irene proclaims, “Still shall Thy servants wait on Thee, O Lord, and in Thy saving mercy put their trust."’ During the eight-measure Larghetto introduction, which contains some of Handel’s finest moments of instrumental text painting. with stepwise motion in the strings and gentle arpeggiation in the bassi representing the "rosy steps"—the chorus stands still, fixated on Irene as she sinks to her knees in prayer. In awe of the divine and appearing to be blinded by the ‘endless light,’ Irene covers her eyes immediately before singing, and keeps her hands there for her entire opening phrase, lifting them on the modulatory cadence into G major (Example 1).
22 Giles, “A glorious voice captures a saint’s struggle in ‘Theodora.’” 23 Bettina Varwig, “Beware the Lamb: Staging Bach’s Passions.” Twentieth-century music, 11 (2) (Sept. 2014), 245. 24 In addition to the similarities present in prophetic style between Elijah and Theodora, the comparison between Handel and Mendelssohn is purposeful. Mendelssohn’s Elijah is seen as inheriting the great English oratorio tradition begun by Handel, 100 years earlier.
Example 1 Covering one’s face for an extended period of time is a curious directorial choice, as it disconnects the performer from both the audience and the conductor. To cover one's eyes implies spiritual insight, rather than earthly physical sight. This direction is symbolic, conveying faith and trust, setting the tone for the rest of the aria. There are two more ritualistic gestures Sellars employs in the A section: folded arms that blossom to ‘drive away the shades of night’ and an abrupt convulsing downward of the torso on the word ‘raise,’ followed by a sharp rising, reflective of the human soul’s innate frailty perpetually lifted up by ‘endless light.’ Being suppressed by darkness is a common theme in Christian spirituality, and the blossoming of the arms open up the body, revealing a physical manifestation of the soul freely breathing the air of Grace. Genuflective gestures used in Judaism were incorporated into Christian prayer and liturgy as forms of reverence. The aggressive bowing
here indicates a subservience of the human body to the Lord in order duly to render praise.25 Standing up at the ending modulation back to C, Irene’s character changes in the B section of the aria, taking on a spirit-filled presence. With eyes gazing upward—staring straight at the previously-blinding light—and with arms outstretched reaching toward the heavens in an exaggerated orans position (Example 2), the chorus, along with Theodora, gather behind Irene, reminiscent of the faithful congregating behind the priest facing ad orientem in a Roman Catholic mass.
25 “All my Limbs shall say, ‘who is like You, O Lord?” (Psalm 35, verse 10)
In the four-measure interlude before the dal segno, the Christian worshippers fall to their knees and with bended torsos cover their eyes, in the same blind-trust fashion as Irene. In an astounding moment of theatricality, the entire chorus uncovers their eyes and stares into the light, suggesting the opening of the eyes of the blind by the prophet Isaiah. Then, in what looks like a reverent liturgical dance, all persons on stage synchronize with Irene’s gestures of prayer and genuflection, all ending with lowered arms with open palms (Example 3) before Hunt Lieberson’s inspired cadenza, now immortalized on video. Active “participation” of the Laity has become integral in Christian liturgy, serving as one of the crucial reforms brought about by the Second Vatican Council:
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Peter 2:9; cf. 2:4–5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.26
Synchronized gesture is more than just an aesthetic, choreographed decision. It represents full unity of the Body of Christ, worshiping together, exercising the office of their universal priesthood.
26 Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium) (4 December 1963), §14
Example 3 The aria ends with Irene, Theodora, and the chorus staring up at Heaven, in complete rapture, taking the audience along with them. While Hunt Lieberson’s tour de force performance launched Theodora and Sellars to immediate stardom, Dawn Upshaw’s portrayal of the lead protagonist is equally captivating. Before “Angels, Ever Bright and Fair,” (Act 1, Scene 5, Number 24) Septimius arrives with soldiers to seize Theodora, announcing that she is to become a prostitute in the temple for her disobedience to worship Venus. After lamenting that this is ‘worse than death indeed,’ Theodora sings her Air, beseeching the heavenly host to ‘take me to your care.’ This scene is one of the most rich in ritual-gestural content. Sellars’s ritualization turns this attractive tune into desperate supplication, executed masterfully through Upshaw’s intuitive acting and unparalleled vocal control. The extended orans position seen in Irene’s aria returns, lifted up by the two accompanying soldiers (Example 4). One cannot help but make the connection
to Christ’s crucifixion on Calvary, situated between the two robbers, and the famous utterance from the Gospel of Luke, “Into Your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.”
Example 4 On the repetition of ‘take, O take me to your care,’ the sustained ‘care’ lasts for five beats, during which her body seems to become angelic, and the hands of the soldiers are repelled by an invisible spiritual force. In a marvelous textual-musical-ritual moment, the soldiers
attempt to grasp Theodora again after the next ‘take me,’ only to be repelled again—in time—with the echo of the strings, representing the protection of the angels (Example 5).
Example 5 As the soldiers begin leading her away, Irene grabs on to her. Theodora begins the B section of the Air, and she and Irene make a symbol that resembles the Chi Rho—one of the earliest forms of christograms (Example 6). While speculative and not confirmed by Sellars, this inference is supported by the history of the Chi Rho symbol. Frequently used by the famous
Roman convert, Emperor Constantine, this symbol became widely associated with Christ in the fourth century (the time-period of the oratorio story).
Example 6 The Chi Rho symbol, which take the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ This symbolism could be an affirmation to the faithful to not fear persecution. While it is doubtful that most of the audience would be aware of thisâ€”today, it would take a scholar trained in symbology to recognize thisâ€”it nonetheless loses none of its potency with the intention of the ritual (Example 7).
On ‘clad in robes of virgin white,’ Theodora covers herself with the chi symbol, proclaiming that her virtue belongs to God, which no man can taint (Example 8).
Example 8 Theodora and Irene then affix their chi signs together, in a true display of Christian fellowship, camaraderie, and kinship (Example 9). Much like the physical greeting of peace in the Mass before the Agnus Dei, Sellars incorporates this unifying gesture before the slaying of the lamb, i.e., the loss of Theodora’s innocence.
Example 9 Perhaps realizing her imminent departure into the hands of the enemy, Theodora and Irene offer themselves to Christ, in a simultaneous and swift motion of abandonment to the heavens (Example 10).
The final symbolic gesture before Theodora is taken away is a recreation of a scene from the Stabat Mater: the sorrowful mother (in this case, Irene) looking up and caressing the face of her sacrificed son (Theodora). Irene envelops Theodora’s head with her hands without ever touching it, implying the crown of thorns and face marred with blood and sweat (Example 11). The exchange is heartbreaking, and one cannot help but wonder if the Blessed Virgin and the Messiah shared a similar look before he gave up his spirit.
Example 11 Irene’s Act III opening aria, ‘Lord, to Thee, each night and day,’ is a final, last-gasp plea for Theodora’s safety. We once again see the orans position, but this time in even more heightened form: filled with distress, Irene is now crying out to God with arms fully extended, echoing Jesus’ exclamation in Matthew’s Gospel, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Example 12)
Example 12 The B section of this aria provides dramatic contrast, with Hunt Lieberson committing to Sellars’s direction of flailing on the ground as one possessed. On the declamatory ‘still to Thee,’ Irene affixes her hand to her forehead, as if to Sign herself (Example 13). Since the early stages of Christianity, the signum crucis has represented an affirmation of belief in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, with the Christian author Tertullian observing, "We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross" in the third century A.D.27 During her ‘dark night of the soul,’ this gesture of faith affirmation has renewed poignancy. Yet, since we do not actually see Irene make the sign of the cross (either on the forehead or across the chest), this leads the audience to wonder if her doubt is beginning to weaken her faith.
27 Orazio Marucchi, "Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908).
Example 13 After the dal segno, the Christian people comfort the distraught Irene who, like Christ, is beginning to bear the sins of the world on her shoulders. The ending scene of the aria is perhaps one of the most aesthetically engaging in the production, with the entire flock flanking Irene, literally holding her up as she collapses under the weight of doubt and fear (Example 14).
Visually reminiscent of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, this moment elicits a powerful response from the audience, who up until this point saw Irene as the model of strength and unwavering faith. Here, in an unsettling contrast from ‘As with rosy steps the morn,’ we see the warrior prophet—who had been strong for so long and on behalf of so many—crumble as a result of her own human frailty. Strengthened by the outpouring of fraternal affection, Irene ends her aria with renewed fervor, targeting the audience’s sense of community in a profound way. The 1996 Glyndebourne production is not the only time Theodora has been staged or ritualized. In 2009, to commemorate the 250th Anniversary of Handel’s death, the artistic forces of the Salzburg Festival chose, albeit with much controversy, to mount a fully-staged production. While an interesting choice to mark such an important occasion at a festival known for opera, director Christof Loy no doubt drew inspiration from Sellars’s praised ritualization, and it was a success: Of all the ways to mark the 250th Anniversary of Handel’s death, a staging of Theodora must rank as one of the hardest to pull off. Salzburg wants to be entertained, doesn’t it? It surely didn’t need a four-hour tale of martyrdom, overwhelmingly solemn in tone, that few here have heard of---not least because the language is English. But that is assuming too much. Theodora has enjoyed full houses; everyone stayed the course.28 Starring Christine Schäfer as Theodora, countertenor Bejun Mehta as Didymus, and Bernarda Fink as Irene, many elements of the ritualization were effective and worthy of the Salzburg Festival label, leading to The New York Times review headline, “Amid Upheavals, a 28 Andrew Clark, “Theodora, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg.” Financial Times. 3 August 2009.
Steady Salzburg Festival.” Despite its success, the production was not as well received as the 1996 Glyndebourne production: “‘Theodora’ contains a lot of intense but somber music, and ultimately it is not wedded to forceful onstage drama as cogently as in Peter Sellars’s famous 1995 [sic, 1996] Glyndebourne production.”29 The New York Times critic suggests that, “part of the problem may be Christine Schäfer, whose singing as Theodora is highly accomplished but small scaled for the Grosses Festspielhaus.”30 Here we get into another layer of critical reception for oratorio ritualization that once again addresses the dramatic ability of the performer. It seems that the critic was not disapproving of her singing per se, but rather that the characterization lacked the dramatic fulfillment so powerfully present in the Glyndebourne production (the critic simply wanted a bigger voice, associating size with dramatic ability). The critical reception of Handel’s Theodora is now being assessed in a multivalent way, beyond what Handel and Morell gave us in the score and libretto. The 2009 Loy ritualization was in many ways a success, but seemed to fail due to the inability of a performer to convey with adequate drama the suffering of the martyr within a ‘ritualized’ adaptation. This is indicative of the efficacy of staging an oratorio: what previous generations would accept as an effective presentation is now held to a higher standard to modern critics and audiences, with increased demands at relevance and liveness.
29 George Loomis, “Amid Upheavals, a Steady Salzburg Festival.” The New York Times. 18 August, 2009. 30 Ibid.
Ritualization and Reception Despite the strong payoff associated with stagings of this kind, the ritualization of the oratorio has not been met with unanimous praise and acceptance. Bettina Varwig opens her article “Beware the Lamb: Staging Bach’s Passion” with an instance of harsh criticism regarding the staging of Bach’s Passions. Noting the example of an English National Opera ritualization of Bach’s St. John Passion, where the final scene saw the presentation of a living lamb to the Evangelist that proceeded to bleat loudly until the end, Varwig begins her analysis on the critical reception of staging Bach’s Passions by reminding us that Passions (or oratorios, in this case) are not operas. Opera productions require staging and sets and costumes and, for some directors, a living animal. Such instances are forgivable in an operatic production, since the purpose fits the appropriate demands of staging. But why subject a sacred vocal work not intended for the theatrical medium to this treatment? To help us digest Sellars’s ritualization approach, Varwig believes it serves to achieve “a keen sense of theatrical conviction by asking his performers to ‘embody’ the musical affect, to let their gestures and physical interactions project the narrative intensity.”31 It is exactly this “narrative intensity” that provides an unshakeable cornerstone to the efficacy of ritualizing Passions and oratorios. The staging is born from deep religious, and even theological contemplation of the music and text. Moreover, ritualizations allow every production to be cogent and relatable, vital to the success of oratorios and Passions in the twenty-first century. Each generation reinterprets past works to meet the demands of the time; music will always
31 Varwig, “Beware the Lamb: Staging Bach’s Passions,” 263.
provide the substance, but presentation provides audiences with context and gives them tools to dissect and analyze the music for themselves. 1750 saw the premiere of Theodora, the only dramatic oratorio Handel wrote with a Christian theme. For nearly 250 years, the unfavorable critical reception of Handelâ€™s favorite oratorio remained unchanged. A daring 1996 Glyndebourne production by American director Peter Sellars presented a full-staged version, launching Theodora onto the international stage. An oratorio that had previously been met with harsh criticism won the admiration and following of both critics and audiences. Through ritualization, Sellars breathed new life into the oratorio, and allowed for the depth and poignancy of the piece to reach its full potential. By incorporating religious symbolism, aesthetics, affect, and dramaturgy, Theodora went from a little-known work that only the Baroque erudite would know, to a tourde-force piece worthy to commemorate the 250th Anniversary of Handelâ€™s death at the famed Salzburg Festival. Ritualized gesture, so deeply embedded with religious symbolism, adds a new layer of relevance and performativity to the oratorio, especially when sacred or religious in theme. The demands of modern reception are constantly evolving, placing an increasing pressure on directors and performers. If the reception of Theodora since 1996 and the analysis of several scenes from the Glyndebourne production teach us one thing, it is that staged oratorios can be relevant, profound, accessible, and alive.
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