Theodora 1280x680 © Simon Pauly

Content / Background

Theodora, George Frideric Handel’s penultimate oratorio, was first performed on 16 March 1750 at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. It was a flop, and the number of Londoners who wanted to hear it was correspondingly modest. When Handel heard that one gentleman wanted to buy tickets for all the boxes for the third performance he reportedly said, “Then he is a fool. The Jews will not come to it (as with Judas [Maccabaeus]) because it is a Christian story, and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one.” That, at least, is how Handel’s closest collaborator, Thomas Morell, quotes him. Morell wrote the libretto to Theodora based on Robert Boyle’s The Martyrdom of Theodora and of Didymus and Pierre Corneille’s Théodore, vierge et martyre. The result is a clearly dramatic and tightly plotted work: In Antioch around the year 304 AD the Roman governor Valens orders sacrifices to the god Jupiter. The ascetic Christian Theodora feels unable to obey this command because of her faith. Valens sentences her to serve as a prostitute in the temple of Venus. Didymus, a Roman officer, confesses to his friend Septimus that Theodora has converted him to Christianity and that he is in love with her. In the meantime, Theodora has been sent to a prison where Didymus is allowed to visit her. He wants to help her escape and she, with great reluctance, agrees. To effect the escape the two change clothes, but this is quickly discovered. Valens feels no pity for Theodora and Didymus, and after they both stress their willingness to die for one another he has them executed. Alongside the popular Messiah (1742) and the early work La Resurrezione (1708), Theodora is Handel’s third oratorio to deal with Christian themes: early Christianity is juxtaposed with the Romans’ belief in their gods against the background of what was probably the most ruthless persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian. Despite all the repression, the two lovers refuse to compromise and die as martyrs. As in earlier works, Handel adapted music by other composers in Theodora to produce expressive arias and choruses. Handel himself regarded it as his most important composition.