The Northern Aldborough Festival has announced its most ambitious project in its history – to stage Handel’s dramatic tale of faith, love and persecution, Theodora.
The composer’s penultimate oratorio tells the tragic tale of noblewoman, Theodora, and Didymus – the Roman soldier who sacrificed his life in support of her.
Theodora has a political and religious stance that still resonates today, where being ‘cancelled’, ‘trolled’, imprisoned or even killed for your beliefs is still a possibility.
Under the tyranny of Roman emperor Diocletian, Theodora – a Christian – refuses to take part in a pagan ritual in his honour and is thrown into prison, where she is sentenced to serve as a temple prostitute, a fate she considers worse than death.
Didymus pledges to save her. He switches clothes with Theodora and takes her place in the prison cell. Their plan is discovered, and the two virtuous Christians are sentenced to death. They enter blissful immortality together.
The Northern Aldborough Festival’s innovative semi-staged production offers a rare opportunity for rural audiences in Yorkshire to experience an international world-class line-up of soloists, chorus and orchestra, under the baton of Baroque specialist, Julian Perkins.
The 40-strong production will be hosted in St Andrew’s Church in the rural village in North Yorkshire, which began as a Romano-British town; Aldborough is renowned for its Roman remains and sizeable Roman mosaics.
Robert Ogden, Artistic Director of the Northern Aldborough Festival, has hopes to tour the production as part of the festival’s charitable mission to bring exceptional music from world-class performers to rural locations.
Theodora is considered Handel’s most overlooked masterpieces as his least performed oratorio, although it was the composer’s favourite.
Robert, a former operatic countertenor, saw the seminal Glyndebourne production of Theodora when he was a postgraduate opera student in 1996: “It was a landmark production which burnished the career of director Peter Sellars. It was a truly memorable dramatic experience, with a production that referenced state stormtroopers and featured opera’s first lethal injection. One that could not leave the audience unmoved.”
Robert says Theodora’s tale echoes today. “It’s a harrowing story that can be found in the fates of so many in the world’s fundamentalist regimes and autocracies, where alternative beliefs or practices are censured or eradicated through legal threats or force.”
Robert added: “One can also perceive a subtler but growing strain of fundamentalism in many democratic countries, where political or cultural norms are locked in and alternative viewpoints discouraged, through ‘cancellation’ or ‘trolling’. Theodora’s story belongs to us all, and her fears are shared by oppressed peoples everywhere.”
Stage director Joe Austin, has directed productions at the Royal Opera House, Opera North and the first production in Nevill Holt’s new opera house, Le Nozze di Figaro. Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn, one of the UK’s foremost young singers, will play the eponymous heroine.
Robert said: “The emotional weight of the themes in Theodora’s libretto, combined with Handel’s sublime music, have led to some of the most moving productions ever witnessed in the opera house. We hope to add to their number. The overarching message of Theodora is one of tolerance – something we can all strive for.”