By Jeff Britton
You don’t have to be a gambler to go for Baroque when it’s in the competent hands of Bach Collegium. Under the deft direction of Ruben Valenzuela, the Del Mar-based chorus and orchestra brought Handel’s rarely staged oratorio “Theodora” to the Balboa Theatre June 27 with splendid results.
Conducting from the harpsichord was Richard Egarr, who kept the tempos tidy, while a fine strings section created a likeable synergy with the principal singers and an enthusiastic chorus. They included period instruments such as the continuo organ, played by Valenzuela, and the theorbo, a large lute, played by Daniel Zuluaga.
My only misgiving was that Handel had not written a larger part for the well-modulated chorus, whose melodies were often the most uplifting.
Bach Collegium’s greatest contribution to serious music in San Diego is the revival of Baroque composers like their namesake, as well as Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Telemann, whose works will be presented in their upcoming season.
Most of us know Handel for the Hallelujah chorus from “Messiah,” a Christmas mainstay. But Handel ranked the chorus “He saw the lovely youth” in “Theodora” as far better than the Hallelujah, much like Tchaikovsky preferred his “Serenade” over the “1812 Overture,” which he dismissed as pedestrian. Don’t tell that to the throngs across America who revel in the 1812 with fireworks every Fourth of July.
“Theodora” is the tale of a princess in Roman Antioch who refuses to offer incense to the Roman gods in the Emperor’s honor, something akin to refusing to salute the flag or sing the national anthem nowadays. The Roman president, Valens, orders her taken to “the vile place” and offered to the soldiers for their amusement – a fate a great deal worse than death to the chaste Theodora.
Enter the hero Didymus, a Roman soldier who secretly converts to Christianity and is in love with her. He sneaks into her prison cell and persuades her to change clothes with him and escape, leaving him for the soldiers. Outraged, Valens condemns Didymus to death, and Theodora happily joins him in martyrdom.
At three and half hours, such a tale might seem like a slog. But the principals were of such high caliber that time moved swiftly as they tackled the vocally complex score.
Nearly every Handel opera and oratorio features a countertenor or male soprano. As Didymus, Darryl Taylor exhibited excellent breath control in his long vocal lines full of difficult trills and cascading peaks and valleys. His pitch was particularly impressive in the a capella sections. As his friend, Septimius, Derek Chester was a tad behind the tempo at times but his lithe tenor navigated some amazing challenges with aplomb.
But the spotlight shone brightest on Mireille Asselin in the title role. Her rich soprano had clarity and a resonant fortitude that was both lovely and emotionally transporting. Her final duet with Taylor was blissfully beautiful.
Mezzo Jennifer Lane as leader of the Christians and bass John Polhamus as Valens gave import to their supporting parts.
Together, everyone involved made the concert a rare treat for fans of Baroque music.
For information on Bach Collegium’s 2009-2010, go to www.bachcollegiumsd.org or call (619) 341-1726