George Frideric Handel, libretto by Thomas Morell
Royal Opera House

Go to film/video...

Joyce DiDonato (Irene) and Julia Bullock (Theodora) Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Julia Bullock (Theodora) and dancers Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Gyula Orendt (centre, Valens) with Julia Bullock and Jakub Jozef Orlinski (Theodora and Didymus, right)) Credit: Camilla Greenwell

"With darkness deep, Hide me, ye shades of night," sings Theodora, an enslaved Christian of noble birth, as well she might, for in Katie Mitchell’s production, she does so in a dimly-lit pole-dancing club whose performers gyrate around her.

The staging updates the piece from 4th century Antioch to a modern presidential residence, doubling as a brothel, into which Theodora has been forced for refusing to observe festivities in honour of the Roman god Jove.

Chloe Lamford’s set features adjacent rooms, the kitchen, cold store and a salon where the tyrannical president Valens directs his court. As the piece opens, Julia Bullock’s Theodora and Joyce DiDonato’s Irene are filling champagne flutes for the celebrations, but covertly preparing explosives with which to blow up the whole shebang.

The transition works to some degree—Handel did indeed condemn his heroine to prostitution—but the virtue of this 2022 Royal Opera House production lies in its magnificent cast of singers, headed by American soprano Julia Bullock in the title role.

Passionate in character, ravishing in voice, she commands the stage in airs such as "Angels bright and fair". She and Polish counter-tenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski’s Didymus combine beautifully in complimentary colours. Joyce DiDonato plays Irene as a troubled soul, her movingly-sung, slow lament "Bane of virtue" full of rich anguish.

Baritone Gyula Orendt is an intense, unyielding Valens, with the excellent British tenor Ed Lyon his compliant henchman Septimius, a role played with perhaps more malicious glee than Handel intended. The fine contrapuntal choruses are sung with exemplary balance, with Harry Bicket conducting the house orchestra of period instruments with sensitivity throughout.

What then of the production? Mitchell handles well for the most part the challenge of translating the slow pace of Handel’s 1750 oratorio into a work suitable for full operatic staging, even if resorting to some scenes of the players moving in slo-mo.

The updating of the piece to the present day is more questionable, an immediate jarring note arising between the archaic words and concepts of the libretto, with its references to "The raptured soul" and suchlike, phrases that would sit more easily with an 18th century setting than they do in this contemporary, cinematic one.

Handel condemns his virtuous couple Theodora and Didymus to death at the hands of the tyrant, but here the ending is confused, the lovers escaping and killing their oppressors, even though the chorus sings of the former being reunited in heaven.

Above all, how are we to sympathise with these Christian heroines, terrorist bombers, with DiDonato disposing of the hated Septimius by garrotting? No wonder she wears that worried look for much of the time.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

*Some links, including Amazon,,, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?