George Frederick Handel

Theodora, oratorio, HWV 68

    Description by Timothy Dickey

    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.


    1. Overture in G minor
    2. 'Tis Dioclesian's natal day
    3. Go my faithful soldier, go
    4. Go, my faithful soldier, go
    5. And draw a blessing down on his imperial crown
    6. Vouchsafe, dread Sir, a gracious ear
    7. Racks, gibbets, sword, and fire shall speak
    8. For ever thus stands fix'd the doom
    9. Most cruel edict!
    10. The raptur'd soul defies the sword
    11. I know thy virtues
    12. Descend, kind Pity, heav'nly guest
    13. Though hard, my friends
    14. Fond flatt'ring world, adieu!
    15. O bright example of all goodness!
    16. Bane of virtue, nurse of passions
    17. Come, mighty Father, mightly Lord
    18. Fly, my brethren!
    19. Ah! wither should we fly?
    20. As with rosy steps the morn advancing
    21. All pow'r heaven above, or earth beneath
    22. Mistaken wretches! why thus blind to fate
    23. Dread the fruits of christian folly
    24. Deluded mortal! call it not rebellion
    25. Oh worse than death indeed!
    26. Angels, ever bright and fair
    27. Unhappy, happy crew!
    28. Kind Heav'n if virtue be thy care
    29. Oh love, how great thy pow'r!
    30. Go, gen'rous pious youth
    31. Ye men of Antioch, with solemn pomp
    32. Queen of summer, queen of love
    33. Wide spread his name and make his glory
    34. Return, Septimius
    35. Venus laughing from the skies
    36. Sinfonia in G minor
    37. Oh thou bright sun!
    38. With darkness deep, as is my woe
    39. Sinfonia in B minor
    40. Sinfonia in E minor
    41. But why art thou disquited, my soul?
    42. Oh that I on wings could rise
    43. Long have I known thy friendly social soul
    44. Though the honours that Flora and Venus receive
    45. Oh save her then or give me pow'r to save
    46. Deeds of kindness to display
    47. The clouds begin to veil the hemisphere
    48. Defend her, Heav'n, let angels spread
    49. Or lull'd with grief or rapt her soul to Heav'n
    50. Sweet rose and lily, flow'ry form!
    51. O save me, Heav'n, in this my perilous hour!
    52. The pilgrim's home, the sick man's health
    53. Forbid it, Heav'n!
    54. Or, say, what right have I to take
    55. Ah! what is liberty or life to me
    56. To thee, thou glorious son of worth
    57. 'Tis night: but night's sweet blessing
    58. He saw the lovely thruth
    59. Lord, to thee each night and day
    60. But see, the good, the virtuous Didymus!
    61. When sunk in anguish and despair
    62. Blessed be the pow'r who gave us
    63. Blest be the hand, and blest the pow'r
    64. Undaunted in the court stands Didymus
    65. Oh my Irene, Heav'n is kind
    66. Stay me not, my friend
    67. Wither princess, do you fly?
    68. She's gone! disdaining liberty
    69. New scenes of joy come crowding on
    70. Is it a Christian virtue
    71. Be that my doom!
    72. From virtue springs each gen'rous deed
    73. Cease, ye slaves, your fruitless pray'r
    74. 'Tis kind, my friends
    75. Lost in anguish quite despairing
    76. How strange their ends and yet how glorious!
    77. On me your frowns
    78. Ye ministers of justice lead them hence
    79. Ye ministers of justice lead them hence
    80. And must such beauty suffer?
    81. Streams of pleasure ever flowing
    82. Ere this their doom is past
    83. Oh Love divine, thou source of fame

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Coviello Classics COV 91732
    2015 Brilliant Classics 95050BR
    2015 Erato
    2012 Glyndebourne GFOCD 01496
    2012 Naxos 857270002
    2010 Warner Classics
    2008 Wcj 256469564
    2008 Alto 2005
    2006 Erato
    2003 Erato 43181
    2001 Brilliant 99267
    2000 Deutsche Grammophon 469061
    1992 Harmonia Mundi 90706062
    1991 Teldec 46447
    MDG MDG932 1019-5
    MDG MDG3321019-2
    Brilliant 99271
    Vanguard 4074