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Theodora, Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) - Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Im a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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Handel in a new light
At one point, in this modern dress production, by the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), of George Frideric Handel's oratorio, a neon-style sign descends. It says 'Venus' and it could be the name of a late-night bar or lap-dancing club.

We'll never know what Handel would have thought of this glimpse of clubland. However, I suspect that the director, John Ramster, would argue that the plight of a sixth century Middle Eastern princess, forced to be a prostitute, makes the setting of a sex club all too relevant.

Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), Theodora George Frideric Handel, Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra Lowe as Theodora. Photo - Robert Workman.

Theodora was premiered in 1750 at Covent Garden, London. Handel's music was set to an English libretto by Thomas Morell. The story takes place in Antioch, Syria. Theodora is the Christian lover of Didymus, a Roman. Theodora's 'crime' is to refuse the order to offer sacrifice to the Roman god Jupiter.

The production opens with Valens, Roman President of Antioch (played by postgraduate student James Berry), dressed in a gold suit, which looks like it was given away by a host of a cable TV game-show host, who thought it too garish to wear.

Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), Theodora George Frideric Handel, James Berry
James Berry as Valens. Photo - Robert Workman.

His devoted followers are dressed as cheerleaders and baseball fans with giant foam hands. In contrast, the Christians led by Irene (played by Rhiain Taylor, also a postgraduate), wear long robes and scarves.

This sartorial contrast could be jarring but it is also highly topical. The debate about whether the state should stop individuals wearing religious symbols and headdress is at the centre of political debate and elections in 2017.

As a non-singer, I could only marvel at the quality of the vocal performances. However, I found it hard to hear the individual words and sentences. Instead, I absorbed myself in the depth, range and emotional resonance of the singing and caught up with the synopsis during the intervals.

My experience of opera is that the drama sometimes lacks immediacy. This was particularly true of a scene where a gun is held to Theodora's head by Didymus (played by 21-year-old countertenor Kieron-Connor Valentine). The tension is offset by the elongated musical exchanges.

Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), Theodora George Frideric Handel, Kieron-Connor Valentine
Kieron-Connor Valentine as Didymus. Photo - Robert Workman.

That said, the tempo of Handel's music - played by the RNCM Opera Orchestra and conducted by Roger Hamilton - compels the action forwards. Theodora is also full of beautiful arias. Alexandra Lowe's performance of Angels, ever bright and fair, where she realises what her punishment will be, is particularly affecting.

Didymus and Theodora's duet Streams of pleasure ever flowing, towards the end of Part Three is a moment of both musical and dramatic transcendence.

Whether or not modern dress productions are to your taste, it's hard to deny how much Bridget Kimak (set and costume design) and Jake Wiltshire (lighting designer), bring to the evening.

What looks like a giant birdcage dominates the stage. It represents spiritual, literal and metaphorical imprisonment. The shifts in lighting enhance the impact of the set design, and reflects the mood changes in Handel's majestic shifts in musical moods and patterns.

Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), Theodora George Frideric Handel, James Berry
James Berry as Valens. Photo - Robert Workman.

The production runs for three hours, 15 minutes and has two intervals. The RNCM cast alternates between productions.

At times Theodora's narrative is heavy going and some its characters seem one-dimensional, at least to our contemporary understanding. However, its key themes and concerns echo all too loudly from the eighteenth to the twenty first century.

Covent Garden, Theodora, Handel, Royal Northern College of Music
Covent Garden where Theodora was first performed. Thomas Rowlandson (17561827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (17621832), via Wikimedia Commons

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Why? First class production of George Frideric Handels oratorio, with cheerleaders
Phone: 0161 907 5555
Where: Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) 124 Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9RD.
Cost: From 21
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