Women are not given easy choices in the musical dramas being performed in Washington this week. For "Der Rosenkavalier's" Marschallin, it is marriage or the veil. For Handel's Theodora, it is homage to Caesar or becoming the plaything of the lowliest Roman guard. Perhaps it is instructive to note that the Marschallin married and Theodora thumbed her nose at Caesar's gods.
Stephen Simon, director of the Handel Festival that has graced the Kennedy Center for the past seven years, brought a marvelous quintet of soloists along with the Handel Festival Orchestra to the Concert Hall Saturday to perform the operatic oratorio "Theodora," written near the end of Handel's life. The soloists have the lion's share of the work in this oratorio, and Justino Diaz, William McDonald, Lorna Haywood and Sheila Nadler sang their roles with splendid agility and glorious musicianship. Fredda Rakusin, as the generous officer Didimus, is a contralto with one of those gorgeous rich voices that oratorio buffs love so well, but one was hard pressed to discern any words in that welter of sound.
Simon had the orchestra eating out of his hand. This is not your run-of-the-mill Handel-formula score. It is subtle and varied and sometimes unexpected. The orchestra sounded assured. It was stylish and jaunty, smooth and lyrical--a consummate Handel ensemble.
This is one of those oratorios in which the chorus does not play a pivotal role, but there are choruses, mostly homophonic ones, and they are as powerful as they are lovely. In Saturday's performance, the Howard University Choir took them on and did them proud. The choir has a big, full-bodied sound, but it is as rhythmically incisive and as carefully honed as a small chamber ensemble. It ought to be sharing more of the Kennedy Center choral duties.