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Handel Oratorio a Sharp Break From Wagner's 'Tristan'

On Thursday night and again tonight, the Dallas Opera’s music director, Graeme Jenkins, is sandwiching a very different kind of work between performances of his company’s Tristan und Isolde.

It’s Handel’s oratorio Theodora, which could hardly be more different from Wagner’s masterpiece, except that both involve love and death.

For Handel, Jenkins is conducting a group of professional soloists, the combined A Cappella Choir and Collegium Singers of the University of North Texas, and the UNT Baroque Orchestra. Thursday night’s performance was in UNT’s Murchison Performing Arts Center in Denton. Tonight everybody will move to the Winspear Opera House in Dallas.

Thursday night’s performance went very well. The student performers seemed well trained and stylistically unified in Baroque practices. The choral sound had great presence (UNT has a long choral tradition; it used to furnish the choruses for Dallas Symphony Orchestra performances).

The soloists were experienced professionals, some of them with international reputations: soprano Ava Pine in the title role, countertenor Ryland Angel, tenor Richard Croft, mezzo Jennifer Lane, bass Jeffrey Snider and tenor Christopher MacRae. Croft, Snider and Lane are UNT faculty members; MacRae is a UNT postgraduate student.

Any Handel oratorio is bound to be compared with Messiah. Musically, Theodora holds its own. There is not the parade of classical hits that Messiah provides, but there are stirring choruses and lovely solo airs and a consistency of inspiration that keeps musical interest up throughout the oratorio’s considerable length (slightly more than three hours).

For me, the high point of the evening was the chorus “Go, gen’rous, pious, youth,” a beautiful, moving number that could stand with the most beloved of the Messiah choruses.

It brings Act 1 to a close. Handel seems to have given special attention to his act-closers. The choruses “He saw the lovely youth,” which ends Act 2, and “O love divine,” which closes Act 3 and the oratorio, are also exceptional.

There are two kinds of chorus in Theodora — a “chorus of Christians” and a “chorus of heathens” (sung by the same people). Handel doesn’t cheat the heathens; they get some listenable music, some of it quite jolly.

There are also memorable airs. Some highlights Thursday were Pine’s serene “Angels, ever bright and fair” and the lovely and sad “With darkness deep,” as well as Croft’s lyrical “Descend, kind pity” and “Dread the fruits,” whose florid passages were impressively handled.

Also on the list of high points were Lane’s moving “Defend her, Heav’n” and Pine’s and Angel’s beautifully sung duet “Thither let our hearts aspire.”

Snider’s energetic “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire,” which is similar in atmosphere to “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” in Messiah, should satisfy those who like a little militancy in their oratorios.

Theodora is unusual among Handel’s oratorios in not being based on the Bible. It’s the story of two fourth-century Christian saints, Theodora and Didymus, who try to save each other from Roman persecution but who eventually are martyred together.

It’s not often performed, so tonight’s presentation will offer a rare opportunity to get acquainted with it.