Handel’s Executioner

The horrifying accounts of last night’s execution of Kenneth Williams by lethal injection in Arkansas demonstrated not only the inhumane nature of this latest state-sanctioned killing, but also the power of religion to carry the condemned from this life into the next.

After reading a prepared statement from his gurney at 10:50p.m., William’s began speaking in tongues before reverting to English for a last apocalyptic pronouncement that echoed back on itself as if from the eternity: “The final words that I speak will forever be, will be forever,” he intoned before his speech trailed off into unintelligibility.

After breathing heavily for a minute or so, he began “coughing, convulsing, lurching and jerking,” reported witness Kelly Kissel of the Associated Press. J. G. Davis, a spokesman for Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, characterized these death throes as “involuntary muscular reaction,” and brushed aside eyewitness accounts: “There was no testimony that he was in pain.” William’s execution was the fourth in one week pushed through by the Arkansas Department of Corrections before their supply of the sedative midazolam expires in a few days. Hutchinson had hoped to see through eight.

On Monday, Arkansas had carried out the first “back-to-back execution,” killing two convicted murders on the same night. The phrase was a figurative one referring to timing, but it would surprise no one if it had also described the actual physical disposition of the killing.

Many of those wheeled into the execution chamber meet their fate armed with their Christian faith. For two millennia Christian martyrs, as well as reformers condemned as a heretics, have sung hymns of faith as the flames engulfed them.

Kelly Gissenander sang Amazing Grace as she was executed in Georgia in 2015.  Her final statement was made available by the authorities; her rendition of the hymn was not. Earthly justice is rightly fearful of the revelatory power of song as delivered by those being killed by the state. For Christian believers, the music of the condemned invokes a higher power, a final appeal that will be decided at the Last Judgment. On that day the stays of execution not issued by the U. S. Supreme Court, whose Christian judges swear their oath with left hand on the Bible, will come up for irrevocable review.

This week’s events in Arkansas put me in mind of a powerful production of Handel’s oratorio Theodora mounted in 1996 by the Glyndebourne Opera in England. (It is available in its entirety on YouTube. As staged by the American theater director, Peter Sellars, the work ends with a double execution by lethal injection—not back-to-back, but side-to side.

That Handel’s Theodora and Sellars’ conception of it are great works of art is, I believe,  confirmed by the enduring relevance of both. The libretto was written by Thomas Morell, Handel’s frequent collaborator in his late works; it presents the story of two historical Christians of the fourth-century living in Roman Antioch—the title character, a young woman of noble birth, and the Roman soldier, Didymus, who has secretly converted to the new faith and harbors the purest of loves for Theodora. The setting is Antioch, also frequently in the news in recent years, though now called Antakya. On Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, the city’s name is seen in bylines by Western reporters since it sits along the Syrian border, 150 miles from Homs and 100 miles from Aleppo.

In Handel’s oratorio the Christian community is ordered to participate in festivals honoring Emperor Diocletian. Theodora refuses and Didymus tries to rescue her from her sentence: if recalcitrant, she will be compelled to serve as a prostitute for the Romans.

Such were the ways of the ruthless Diocletian Persecution launched in 303 C. E. that forced Christians to comply with the Roman religion. Morrell’s libretto offers a reasoned defense of religious tolerance, and  is unexpectedly compassionate towards paganism and even some of the Romans charged with carrying out the persecution.

When originally put on in 1750, the oratorio was not staged. But it is a fully-fledged drama, the main musical difference with Handel’s operas being the language (English rather than Italian) and the abundant use of the chorus. Naturally resistance was mounted during Handel’s day from clerics opposed to the staging of religious stories in the theater. But such barriers were soon demolished by the shear force of Handel’s music and the immense popularity of these uplifting entertainments. His oratorios enriched him financially and secured his posthumous legacy.

Their success in no small derived from the lasting appeal of the choral numbers, the most famous of which is, of course, the Hallelujah Chorus. Handel himself thought that the chorus “He saw the lovely youth,” which concludes the second of the oratorios’ three acts, was far superior. After groping its way through the darkness of death, the movement reaches up towards the sublime light of resurrection.  For a man approaching sixty-five with his own eyesight failing, the music can be heard as an expression of the composer’s own creative powers escaping the confines of the world. Instead of monarch and audiences standing, as George II did on hearing the Hallelujah Chorus for the first time in 1743, it is Handel who rises up to otherworldly heights.

Yet Theodora was a flop in its time. A London earthquake shortly before its premiere drove many from the city. But it was certainly the somber ending that diminished attendance.

The sentence of death handed out to two Christians, Theodora and Didymus, is not enacted in the libretto, but Sellars presents the execution on stage, adopting the favored American mode of lethal injection.

In the libretto, Morell refers to the Christians’ chief persecutor, Valens, as “President of Antioch.” Ever the quirky and compelling updater, Sellars makes his Valens the President of the United States. Some twenty years on, this Roman chief executive as portrayed by Forde Olsen has a sweep of blond, tangerine-tinged hair and wears a dark-suit and red-and-blue striped tie. In short, he bears more than a passing resemblance to the blustering, bomb-throwing Commander-in Chief sometimes sighted in the Oval Office, even if the Norwegian bass is a good measure more dashing than the bumbling Trump. As if thought up yesterday rather than two decades ago, the tour-de-force opening scene of Theodora is packed with two arias for Valens and punctuated by rousing choruses, the President promising Christians that “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire, shall speak my vengeful ire” if they don’t join in the Roman rites. His brash grandstanding—including an apparent heart-attack captured live by the onstage cameras—incites full-throated choral affirmation by his pliant press corps, with trumpets flying like Tomahawk missiles above the crash of timpani. (The scene begins at 7:16 of this YouTube video.)

These raucous and menacing opening images contrast with Handel’s music for the final, dying statements Didymus and Theodora in the Act III. This Christian farewell comes after Valens, fed up with an eloquent appeal from one of his own soldiers, has impatiently signed off on the execution warrants in an aria that unforgettably captures the violent impatience of summary justice (“Cease, ye slaves, your fruitless pray’r! / The pow’rs below / No pity know, For the brave, or for the fair.” — go to just past the three-hour mark on the YouTube video). Another furious outburst follows from the President (go to 3:09:30) when he commands the officers of the law to carry out the sentence immediately: “Ye ministers of justice, lead them hence, / I cannot, will not bear such insolence.”

By contrast the music be sung by the two Christians on their gurneys is poised, pacific.

First Didymus (the greatest Handelian countertenor of the last quarter-century, David Daniels) hymns the ambrosial delights beckoning in heaven. (go to 3:21:40) If Handel were not so adept at conjuring calm sublimity, one might be tempted to say the result is miraculous. Accepting and unwavering, though not too eager, the composer’s setting of Morell’s words “Streams of pleasure ever flowing” evokes not just the transfigured joys awaiting the self-sacrificing Christians, but the poison flowing into the condemned pairs’ veins.

Theodora (sung with radiant purity by the celebrated American soprano Dawn Upshaw) joins Didymus for the refrain, the radiance of the aria’s G-major opening now receding into the shadows of E Minor and towards death. This transcendent duet anticipates the music of heaven, its last couplet calling out gently: “Wake the song, and tune the lyre / Of the blissful holy choir.” The music unites the pair in eternal love as their vital signs flatten. There are no convulsions.

Having directed the executioner to flip the switch, Valens does his best to hold his official pose, but seems plagued by doubt as the final aria/duet takes its beatific course. A benedictory Chorus of Christians hails the martyrs’ model, resolute rather than resounding.

The song of the condemned is as calm as it is unsettling for the forces of Imperial justice. Handel’s music and its themes are timeless, Sellars’ presentation of them timely.  The genius of the original work accommodates, even welcomes inspired transformation by theater-makers of imagination. The Glyndebourne production of Theodora offers thought-provoking reflections on the barbarism of past, as well as on the bitter ironies of the present, like the fact that another modern day Valens, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, claims to be a devout Christian.


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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