There was a time when, if anyone mentioned Theodora, the response would inevitably have been, who? How times have changed! The English Concert, which bills itself as “Europe’s leading baroque orchestra,” is actually touring Handel’s oratorio, and it stopped in Chapel Hill on an icy-cold evening for a presentation in the University of North Carolina‘s Memorial Hall, thanks to Carolina Performing Arts. Next stop? Carnegie Hall, on February 2, followed by Birmingham and London, England – and then Paris.

Note they are playing all these locations with the same chorus, which happens to be one of New York’s finest: it’s the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal Church established in 1697, 15 years before Handel landed in London. (Think about that.) The choir director is Julian Wachner, and one must say that he and his singers represented the Yankee side of this trans-oceanic artistic partnership exceedingly well. (In Chapel Hill, at an historic church, the choir gave a concert the night before Theodora, attendance at which was said to have been little impacted by the adverse weather that had hit Central N.C. the day before.)

Theodora, generally considered Handel’s penultimate oratorio (omitting pastiches and re-workings…; it was premiered in 1750), is not often heard but is far more readily available for listening now than at any time in its 264-year history, thanks to recordings and the internet. Still, there’s nothing like a live performance, and this run is of particular note, given the HIP (historically informed performance) approach being employed. Period-instrument readings of full-evening works by Handel are relatively rare in the Tar Heel State, although North Carolinians who travel may certainly find them elsewhere from time to time (in Boston, for example, at the Boston Early Music Festival, for openers.)

But what does HIP mean, in this context? Do we hear this work as Handel might have heard it in its three-performance initial run? Well, the instruments are authentic or accurate replicas, the singers are exceedingly well-versed in the style of the composer’s time, the forces are appropriately sized (to the best of our current knowledge), and the director is certainly among the most skilled and scholarly, too, of our era. So yes, it likely sounded somewhat like something Handel might have heard. But can listeners today know precisely what it was like back then? At UNC, there was a multi-disciplinary panel of distinguished academicians who did their level best, in lengthy papers and remarks, to orient a smallish crowd of folks three days ahead of the concert – plus an even more informative pre-performance interview with the conductor himself. But despite the scholarship and a lot of concerts, this listener persists in the belief that we can get close but claim no cigar, thanks to the weight of history – artistic and otherwise – since Handel’s time. And never mind that artistic and scholarly perceptions of how to do Handel “correctly” have changed greatly, over time, too….

The libretto, by the Rev. Thomas Morell, is based on a novella by Robert Boyle, remembered chiefly for Boyle’s Law – he was a quasi-renaissance man for sure. The plot centers on the martyrdom of the virtuous title character, a Christian, and a Roman Christian convert, Didymus, enamored of Theodora, both of whom die when they decline to offer sacrifices to Jupiter (well, Venus and Flora), as ordered by Valens, the governor of Antioch (where followers of Jesus are believed to have first been called “Christians”). Septimius serves as the enforcer and go-between for most of what action there is. Groups of Christians and Romans (the libretto calls them “Heathens”) are represented by the choir. Along the way there are twists and turns such as a threat of forced prostitution in lieu of death for Theodora. In retrospect, it’s not the sort of tale that would have engendered widespread popular enthusiasm in London, and never mind the several earthquakes that preceded the performances. No wonder ticket sales were poor at its premiere.

The solo singers were uniformly excellent: Dorothea Röschmann (Theodora), Sarah Connolly (Irene), David Daniels (Didymus), Kurt Streit (Septimius), and Neal Davies (Valens) are likely at the tops of their respective games; could a better, more balanced. and more compatible cast be mustered anywhere? (A messenger – unnamed in the program – stepped forward from the choir for his brief lines.)

The choir itself gave constant delight in terms of precision, clarity, definition, balance, and enunciation. (The texts were given in the program and also projected as flawlessly-timed supertitles, but only rarely did one need them, so good was the diction by all concerned.) So the exceptional purity of the choral singing was definitely a highlight of the evening, as was the work of the orchestra exemplary in every way, more than meeting every expectation of the ensemble’s advanced billing. This HIP band tuned before each act but then managed to sustain true intonation in ways that surely amazed even those listeners who had heard lots of early-music ensembles. The warm and rich sound belied the relatively small number of players, who managed surprisingly wide (albeit subtle) dynamic ranges and ear-catching textures and tonal colors that modern orchestras simply cannot emulate.

As in many works by Handel, there are discrete borrowings from other composers; these may readily be looked up in scholarly treatises.Theodora has some overtones of other Handel oratorios, too – Saul came to mind more than once, and the artistic structure of Act II, in particular, reminded this listener of the second part of Julius Caesar in its progression of increasingly magnificent vocal delights.

Bicket, mostly working from the harpsichord (borrowed from UNC’s Music Department), proved himself a subtle conductor and inspiring leader throughout, ever watchful, totally attuned to the requirements of the score and the needs of his soloists and the choir. Balance was never an issue – no, not once.

The tone was set with the “French” overture, our first introduction to the wonders and delights of the English Concert’s exceptional abilities. There ensued far too many highlights to cite them all but including, in Act I alone, the tenor’s “Descend, kind pity,” the mezzo’s “Bane of virtue” and “As with rosy steps,” the soprano’s heartfelt rendering of the popular “Angels, ever bright and fair,” and the countertenor’s resolution to rescue Theodora, “Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care.” As noted, Act II proved to be a sequence of ever more enchanting musical treasures, and with several significant orchestral enhancements, capped by a radiant duet and the chorus Handel is said to have stated was his very best work. Act III brought the evening’s highest drama with the bass chewing up the carpet (figuratively, of course), the tenor veering toward forgiveness, and the couple affirming their belief that virtue will be rewarded in eternity. The mezzo gets the last word – “…love is stronger far than death” – and the chorus sang the somber farewell that exudes little temporal consolation. Overall, the energy never seemed to flag on the stage, nor did the enthusiasm of some of the listeners wane in the hall, which is one of the region’s better rooms for moderate-sized productions.

But was it altogether too much of a good thing? Some members of the audience clearly thought so, as a few folks faded away at the first intermission and then more, at the second. Maybe Stravinsky was correct, in retrospect, when he (famously) said of Theodora, “It’s beautiful and boring. Too many pieces finish too long after the end.”

This performance proved the Russian wrong. To have heard Theodora like this, by these artists, was a rare treat for devoted music lovers, one about which we may hope to tell our grandkids in years to come.

PS The NY performance on Feb. 2 will be broadcast/webcast on WQXR on March 16 at 7 p.m. Area readers can get it online. For details, click here.