Act 1[ edit ] The 4th century AD. Didymus, a soldier secretly converted to Christianity, asks that citizens whose consciences prevent them making sacrifices to idols be spared punishment, which Valens dismisses. Septimius suspects Didymus is a Christian and affirms his own loyalty to the law although he pities those who will be condemned to die by the decree and wishes he could be allowed to extend mercy to them. Septimius comes to arrest them - Theodora expects to be put to death but is informed that instead she has been sentenced to serve as a prostitute in the temple of Venus.
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Those who refuse to participate will be punished or executed. He charges Septimius with carrying out his orders.
Didymus, a Roman soldier, asks that those whose conscience forbids them from particpating be protected from punishment. Didymus turns now to Septimius with the same argument. Septimius suspects that Didymus is secretly a Christian, and admits that he too would prefer to show mercy to those who refuse to celebrate. However, he is a loyal Roman and will carry out his orders. In the Christian community, Theodora and Irene are praying. But Irene leads the community in a reaffirmation of their faith.
Septimius arrives and warns them of the punishment they face — a punishment Theodora is happy to embrace. However, rather than have her executed Septimius takes her away to a brothel where she will be prostituted to the Roman soldiers. Didymus arrives too late to save her, and sets out to release her. The chorus pray to heaven for his success. Act II The Romans proceed with their celebrations. Valens sends Septimius to Theodora with an offer of clemency if she makes a sacrifice before sunset.
In her prison cell, Theodora waits fearfully for her fate. But contemplation of the heaven that awaits her after death cheers her spirits. Didymus enters the cell and finds Theodora asleep. She wakes with a start fearing the worse, but Didymus reveals his identity and calms her. She begs him to kill her but he cannot. Instead he dresses her in his uniform and, disguised as a soldier, Theodora escapes the cell leaving Didymus in her place. The Christians maintian a vigil, led by Irene.
The Christians celebrate her safe return, though Theodora herself is concerned for the safety of Didymus. A messenger arrives to tell them that Didymus has been sentenced to death, and that Theodora is now too condemned to die if she is caught.
Valens condemns Didymus to death as Theodora arrives to save him. Both offer to die in place of the other, but Valens will not let them bargain with their own fates and sends both of them to execution. As they blissfully enter immortality together the Christian community join in a hymn of praise. This would prove to be his penultimate major work, and it would be a further two years before he produced his final great oratorio, Jephtha.
The omens for Theodora were not good. A week before the first performance on 16th March London experienced an unprecendented earthquake. The shock was at half past five in the morning. It awoke people from their sleep and frightened them out of their houses. A servant maid in Charterhouse-square, was thrown from her bed, and had her arm broken; bells in several steeples were struck by the chime hammers; great stones were thrown from the new spire of Westminster Abbey; dogs howled in uncommon tones; and fish jumped half a yard above the water.
This would account in part for the small attendance at the three performances given of Theodora that season. Handel was also concerned about the audience the Christian story with a tragic ending could attract.
Handel was disappointed by the poor reception given to Theodora. The first cast of Theodora included the alto-castrato Gaetano Guadagni, for whom Handel wrote the role of Didymus. It was unusual for Handel to include a castrato voice in his English oratorios, but Guadagni had already appeared with great success in performances of Messiah and Samson, for which Handel had adapted the roles originally sung by Susannah Cibber. Despite his affection for the work, Handel never revived Theodora.
Theodora, HWV 68