Händel - Theodora

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday October 10 2015

Conductor: William Christie. Production: Stephen Langridge. Choregraphy: Philippe Giraudeau. Sets and costumes: Alison Chitty. Lighting: Fabrice Kebour. Theodora: Katherine Watson. Irene: Stéphanie d’Oustrac. Didymus: Philippe Jaroussky. Septimius: Kresimir Spicer. Valens: Callum Thorpe. Les Arts Florissants.

An old friend of mine was too ill to go to the TCE for Theodora last night (hacking cough, like many in Paris at the moment - but people know Christie too well to dare hack their lungs out with him in the pit) and therefore asked for a report immediately after. As these e-mails or texts shot-off in the heat of the night while still abuzz from a show sum up one's main conclusions, I'll reproduce mine here:

Have you heard this Katherine Watson? If not you must try to get back to the TCE. I see she was a choral scholar at Trinity (1). That kind of background probably explains her degree of accomplishment and musicianship when yet so young. A very good partner to Jarrousky. This being the case, as you might expect, with all the unemphatic fluency of Les Arts Florissants in the hands of Christie himself, it was musically a great evening. The production, on the other hand, while harmless (it didn't prevent the singers projecting engagement and emotion) was bland and totally unoriginal. I say "harmless," but it's a shame it wasn't a more outstanding one: what an evening that would have made it!

So, yes, Katherine Watson struck me as remarkably accomplished and musical - a sweet soprano voice but with reserves of power, intelligently and sensitively used, taking me back to an earlier, "emerging HIP" British Händelian generation: the likes of Sheila Armstrong or Felicity Palmer. She's also pretty and a charismatic actress. I see (on her web site) that Hugh Canning (Sunday Times) has already said "Clearly one to watch". I had the same thought, and will look out for her in future. And when I say "good partner to Jarrousky," that's of course because he, too, is sweet-voiced, intelligent and sensitive. So their act two scenes together were what the French call a morceau d'anthologie - one for the annals.

The evening gave evidence, once more, that it's no use judging voices from recordings. I'd never been seduced by what I heard of Jaroussky so far, but discovered that, live, he has a very engaging, seductive timbre as well as an engaged and engaging presence on stage. His sometimes even languid phrasing, the purity of his held notes and sheer beauty of the top ones make up for the (common, I might say, among male altos) near-inaudibility of his lowest range. His voice is medium-to-low-powered (though not "incredibly small," as I'd been warned), hardly operatic, and with his unworldly demeanour and choirboy looks, he is anything but convincing as a wicked Roman soldier (though, in a drab uniform, he has something of the young Charles de Gaulle about him). But Theodora is not an opera after all, and he's perfectly convincing - and more: moving - as a Christian youth.

Callum Thorpe is another well-trained former chorister, in his case at Coventry Cathedral, with an undeniably striking bass voice, bright in timbre but cavernous beneath, and striking looks as well. He was, once or twice, a touch short-winded for long Händelian lines, taking breath mid-word, but that's a minor point: I'd be happy to hear him again any time. He made a youthful Valens, swamped, somewhat, in his uniform. Kresimir Spicer was quite a commanding Septimius, with an interesting timbre (though so grainy I did wonder if he had a cold coming on) put to real dramatic use, a wide dynamic range and great agility and accuracy. His diction was excellent. In this ruly context, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, with her relatively unruly voice, came across as the baroque equivalent of a character mezzo, a Händelian Azucena. Nothing wrong with that: it made a change.

Not much one can say about Christie and the orchestra and chorus of Les Arts Florissants. As you might expect, the music-making all evening was at the highest level - as I said above, totally yet unemphatically fluent. Händel's sublime late score was lovingly (at times really sublimely) phrased by Christie - more oratorio than dramatic: he did not play up the drama in, for example, the production's confrontation between Christians and Roman riot police.

Because, yes, riot police there were. As is so often the case these days, on the "baddies'" side, the leering men were got up in dinner jackets and the leering women in sparkling black ball gowns with extravagant hairdos and stilettos. The chorus, as usual, were not really cut out for convincing drunken revels and suggested high-class sex. The "goodies" were middle class lefties in beige linens, pale grey cotton and sensible, flat shoes, hugging each other (probably on the way to buy organic produce at inflated prices, it occurred to me) and sharing out bibles. No hint of sex. There were six handsome extras in riot gear and berets, fidgeting nervously with batons. The sets were sliding, ochre-coloured walls, against which rebels were (silently) shot, leaving blood splashes. There was, when required, a gold bust of the Emperor; there were even our old pals the iron bedsteads (though not the lone, unshaded light-bulb that usually hangs over them. A directorial oversight, no doubt). The on-stage martyrs' black-and white photos were posted up au fur et à mesure on the walls, eventually joined by what I think were real photos of real, modern-day martyrs. This was an attempt at seriousness, but the whole production was a bit too blandly, smoothly "luvvie" in overall style to convince.

Which was a pity. An outstanding production would have taken outstanding music-making to exceptional heights. Still, the singers projected their commitment in spite of the trivialising distractions, so I'm not complaining, and New York will get all the music without them. New Yorkers should go.

(1) Trinity College Cambridge.


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