Theodora, Glyndebourne Festival, Glyndebourne

A dark drama of modern horrors
Click to follow

It was, famously, opera's first lethal injection. Dead man walking. Dead woman, too. Handel's Theodora has returned to Glyndebourne in the production from 1996, which now looks and feels like a lexicon for everything that the director Peter Sellars has ever done. The stormtroopers in their crash-helmets and orange jumpsuits - the sinister face of state persecution - might almost hint at self-parody now, but when you look closely and identify the outfits as American airforce issue, the analogy with ancient Rome is not such a stretch after all.

Sellars relates everything to the culture he knows best: his own. Emotionally, he's a child of the Sixties at heart, and in Theodora he found a piece that perfectly chimed with his sensibilities. This extraordinary oratorio is still one of Handel's best-kept secrets, a work of deep and abiding compassion whose prayerful choral laments are as potent and humane a plea for respect and tolerance as anything I know. One of the great revelations of Sellars's original production was his now-familiar use of hand gesture, rooted as it is in baroque procedure. To be able to pull visual focus in this way on the music's counterpoint, to see and feel the expression in action, as it were, remains one of the production's most enduring features.

The Glyndebourne chorus, individually and collectively, was simply superb. Where else in the world would a producer and a chorus master be afforded the time to hone such complexities to this degree of precision? The Glyndebourne motto - "Not the best we can do, but the best that can be done anywhere" - is, at times like this, as good as its word.

Everything about this evening was felt as well as thought through. The conductor Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were the foundation of it all. Whether providing the martial clatter of trumpets and drums, the ribaldry of natural horns, or balmy strings underpinned by the deep resonance of theorbo, theirs was a most distinguished contribution. Bicket and Sellars and the designer George Tyspin were of one mind in giving everything the room to express itself. Tyspin's spatial white box, with its outsized relics of Roman glasswear ever present as a symbol of cultural innovation undermined by nationalistic brutality, was strikingly lit by James F Ingalls to convey both stark reality and crepuscular dreaminess. Sellars loves silence, and some of the pauses that he and Bicket daringly opened up for reflection before the end cadences of some numbers were hugely dramatic.

The singing of the principals was forged from the widest possible vocal and emotional range - especially Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, who was staggering as Irene, stretching our ears with the most inward and rarified pianissimi, stopping us in our tracks with fortissimi that were positively scary in their resolve. Her beautiful Act I air, "As with rosy steps the morn", will not easily be forgotten.

Then there were the lovers from opposite sides of the religious and political divide. In the title role, Susan Gritton calls to mind its originator, Dawn Upshaw, because she sings, as Upshaw does, through the text, sending out tingling lines of communication with every phrase. The countertenor Robin Blaze (Didymus) does so, too, but his voice is not always equal to his emotional needs; there's a tendency to push it beyond its natural reach.

But when the singing means as much as it did here, then we think less of vocal endowment and more of the feeling it espouses. Sellars must take enormous credit for empowering his performers in the way that he does. There are those who deride his contemporary references, but is there not something chillingly incongruous about a politician in a well-tailored suit wowing his news conference with the promise of "racks, gibbets, swords and fire"? Likewise that "state execution", our lovers displayed on those crucifix-like gurneys while the slow, clinical process of death is enacted to music of such peerless beauty. Indifference is not an option.

To 31 August (01273 813 813)