On the evening of March 16, 1750, the 64-year-old Handel raised his baton in London's Covent Garden playhouse to open the first performance of a new oratorio. Unfortunately, the English public that night was underwhelmed. Whether because they disliked Handel's new kind of moralistic subject or feared that week's London earthquakes, the first audiences for Theodora were very thin. Some of Handel's friends thought it his most "finished, beautiful, and labor'd" work ever; nevertheless, it only ran for three performances. Later generations have discovered and rediscovered the emotional depth and intensity of Handel's Theodora, now acknowledged one of his finest oratorios. In it mingle his operatic gift for characterization and his masterful hand in setting the English language for its many choruses.
The subject matter of Handel's Theodora may have surprised its first London audiences. This work is nearly alone among his 22 English oratorios in having a non-Biblical story, and is the only one set in Christian times. The plot concerns two Christian martyrs in Antioch during the persecution of Diocletian. St. Ambrose first recorded the story of the martyrs Theodora and Didymus; later English audiences knew the tale through Foxe's Book of Martyrs, through Corneille's play on the subject, and especially via the novel by the eminent scientist and theologian Robert Boyle. Handel's libretto came from the pen of Rev. Thomas Morell (also librettist for his Judas Maccabeus, Alexander Balus, and Jeptha).
Morell gave Handel an intimate and sentimental tale of two Christian lovers who are faced with torture, rape, and death for their faith; their steadfast hope in the afterlife, and their love for one another, allow them to triumph spiritually. Handel's music brilliantly embodies their profound sense of hope despite the violence and danger of the surface events. A bullying Roman governor (Valens) threatens the heroine Theodora, leader of the Antiochine Christians, with multiple violation by his soldiers, and with all the torture instruments of the Inquisition, if she refuses to worship the Roman gods. In the end, both Theodora and Didymus, a Roman soldier who supports free Christian thought and tries to save her, are sentenced to death. Yet the passionate uplift of Handel's music in their arias and duets maintains a deep emotional sense of hope. His choruses of Christians (which alternate with choruses of vengeful pagans) both react to and participate in the action, reinforcing the moral (or amoral) choices of the main characters.