Cruel and Unusual Handel

On Wednesday South Carolina’s Supreme Court temporarily halted the execution by firing squad of Richard Moore, a 57-year-old Black man who has been on death row for two decades. The state’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster, signed a law last year that made the electric chair the prime mode of execution, but also allowed the condemned the choice of being dispatched by firing squad.  The legislation was motivated less by the fact that several executions by lethal injection been botched in recent years, than because it has become difficult to obtain the lethal drugs.  Moore opted for the firing squad, but his lawyers have been fighting his execution, previously scheduled for April 29th, as cruel and unusual punishment.

This week’s legal proceedings in South Carolina put me in mind of a powerful production of Handel’s oratorio Theodora mounted a quarter-century ago by the Glyndebourne Opera in England. As staged by the American theater director, Peter Sellars, the work ends with a double execution by lethal injection.

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. The oratorio 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, frequently in the news during the long years of the Syrian Civil War, and now called Antakya. On Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, the city 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 become a prostitute for the Romans.

The ruthless Diocletian Persecution launched in 303 C.E. forced Christians to comply with the Roman religion. Morrell’s libretto presents a reasoned defense of religious tolerance, and is also 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 differences with Handel’s operas being the language (English rather than Italian) and the abundant use of the chorus. Naturally, resistance was stiff during Handel’s day from clerics opposed to the staging of religious stories in the theater. But such barriers were soon demolished by the sheer 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 measure 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 oratorio’s 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 65 with his own eyesight failing, the music can be heard as an expression of an artist’s 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 through his music.

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 the 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 Frode Olsen has a sweep of blond, tangerine-tinged hair and wears a dark-suit and red-and-blue striped tie. In short, he is dashing composite of several blustering, bomb-throwing Commanders-in Chief sometimes sighted in the Oval Office: Kennedy, Nixon, Clinton, Trump.

As if thought up yesterday rather than two decades ago, the tour-de-force opening scene of Sellar’s 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 affirmations by his pliant press corps, with trumpets flying like Tomahawk missiles above the timpani’s blast.

These raucous and menacing opening images contrast with Handel’s music for the final, dying statements Didymus and Theodora in Act III. This Christian farewell comes after Valens, rejecting 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.” Another furious outburst follows from the President as 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 being sung by the two Christians on their gurneys is poised, pacific.

First Didymus hymns the ambrosial delights beckoning in heaven. 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 harmony 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. A quarter-century since it was staged, the Glyndebourne production of Theodora offers thought-provoking reflections on the barbarism of the past, as well as on the bitter ironies of the present, not least that another modern-day Valens, South Carolina Governor Hutchinson, claims to be a devout Christian. A new production of Theodora will need a firing a squad, capping Handel’s transfiguring final duet with the rifles’ report.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at