If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know I love discovering new sounds. Often, I hear music for the first time that may have come out last month, last year, or forty years ago. And with my Classical Sunday segment, I frequently find pieces from four hundred years ago that I’ve never known before. It’s all quite awe-inspiring and a little daunting, knowing there is more music than I could ever listen to in my lifetime.
On Friday morning, I received a weekly music digest email from the online service of the British daily newspaper The Guardian. I always skim the topics and usually find something of interest to myself or to share with someone I know. In that email, under the Classical heading, there was a review of a live performance of Theodora, a three-act dramatic oratorio, with music composed in 1749 by the German-British Baroque composer Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) and libretto by the English printer, librettist and classical scholar Thomas Morell (1703–1784).
Though I like many of Handel’s compositions, today is my first post featuring his music. And the mythical sound of the title Theodora attracted me, so I set out to learn about it…
The notes in a YouTube video excerpt of the aria from a performance of the work say, “First performed in 1750, Theodora tells the story of Christian martyrs in ancient Antioch under Roman occupation. Theodora was Handel’s penultimate major work, and he considered it among his best. Soprano Lisette Oropesa takes the role of the noble Theodora, while mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato portrays her friend Irene, a leading light of Antioch’s community of Christians; Didymus, a Roman soldier who loves Theodora, is sung by countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, and his friend Septimius by tenor Michael Spyres, while baritone John Chest holds sway as the authoritarian Roman governor Valens.”
An article in Wikipedia and another source I’ve lost track of told me that while the oratorio was one of Handel’s favoured pieces among his creations, its 1750 debut performance was unsuccessful. Fast forward to today, it is a very popular work. As an oratorio, it is typically performed with an orchestra, though it has also been staged like an opera.
I don’t know the oratorio’s story or the setting for the aria I selected for today. In a quick search for videos of Theodora, I was entranced by the aria title “As with Rosy Steps the Morn.” The name sounds like the setting for a pastoral scene, yet, if I understand the order of the oratorio, it’s hard to know the context as Theodora’s difficulties begin early in Act I: she and her friend Irene are Christians, arrested for disobeying a decree by the Roman governor of ancient Antioch (a city in what is now Turkiye) that all citizens must offer sacrifice to Venus, goddess of love, and Flora, goddess of spring, in honour of the birthday of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (242-311 AD). Theodora expects to be put to death but instead is required to be a prostitute in the temple of Venus; she’d rather die. Irene tells Didymus of this, and he seeks to either rescue Theodora or die with her. So yeah, not exactly a peaceful meadow image here, but there is powerful love, and the poetry by Morell is magnificent:
“As with rosy steps the morn
Advancing, drives the shades of night;
So from virtuous toils well-borne,
Raise thou our hopes of endless light.
Triumphant Saviour! Lord of Day!
Thou art the Life, the Light, the Way.”
“As with Rosy Steps the Morn,” poem by Thomas Morell, set to music by G.F. Handel.
Text retrieved from the Vocal Music Instrumentation Index.
I suppose the text may be offering that, even in our darkest times, we can be comforted by beauty in its simplest forms: a flower, a sunrise, a caring note or touch, a feeling of love. Despite her dear friend’s predicament, Irene has hopes of endless light.
The aria is an incredibly gorgeous work, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have since finding it on Friday.
Now you know a little about why this is my Song of the Day for Today. Thanks for joining me here.
Here is the aria from a 2022 Warner Classics/Erato recording of Russian conductor, pianist, cornetist and harpsichordist Maxim Emelyanychev (b. 1988) conducting the Il Pomo d’Oro ensemble while playing the harpsichord, and American mezzo-soprano soloist Joyce DiDonato (b. 1969), from DiDonato’s YouTube channel.
And here is a video excerpt from Warner/Erato of a performance by Emelyanychev, Il Pomo d’Oro ensemble and Joyce DiDonato, along with fellow soloists Oropesa, Bénos-Djian, Spyres and Chest.
With warm wishes,
2 thoughts on “Theodora, HWV 68, Pt. I, Scene IV: “As with Rosy Steps the Morn””
Thank you Steve
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You’re welcome, Bill.