Considering the flop of his oratorio Theodora in 1750, Handel wryly observed, ‘the Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story, and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one’.
And for 240 years it remained in the shadows, only acquiring its present popularity thanks to Peter Sellars’ inspired Glyndebourne production starring the late great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in 1996. And as a celebration of religious tolerance and freedom of thought, it does indeed lack the lurid glamour of most Baroque tragedy: the passions which drive it have a glowing inwardness, as does Handel’s music.
For this performance in a packed-out Barbican, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street had flown over to join Harry Bicket and his ensemble The English Concert plus a brilliant line-up of soloists.
Stepping into Lieberson’s shoes as the heroine’s confidante Irene, Sarah Connolly deployed a refined artistry matched by Kurt Streit’s as the compassionate Septimus; Rosemary Joshua’s delicately-calibrated portrayal of the title role found its ideal complement in that of counter-tenor Tim Mead as the Roman convert who joins her in martyrdom; as the governor Valens, baritone Neal Davies resonantly incarnated the inexorability of the law.
Flawless and uplifting.