"Theodora, Virgin and Martyr" is the less than appetizing subtitle of Handel's pentultimate oratorio, subject taken from St. Ambrosius' "De virginibus", made into a play by Pierre Corneille (1646), and also a novel-treatise by Robert Boyle (1687). From this inauspicious subject, two works of great beauty resulted, the play and the oratorio. Yet the popularity of either was little in their day, and for this we will blame the subject, too much virtue, too little passion. However, the music is strangely liberated from the drama and Handel really outdid himself, as he did so often in the more subtle, heroine-centred oratorios "Deborah", "Susannah" are two good examples. Just how does one sustain interest over three CD's with little forward-moving plot and sententious choruses? Simply, via the music, and by extention, the skill and expressiveness of the singers and orchestra. Paul McCreesh took what he learned about variety from Solomon, dramatic singing of static texts from the Messiah, and gave us this latest, beautiful release. Buy this opera for Susan Gritton, a passionate yet consumate voice, but also for the clean, "boyish" (yet with lovely, dark low notes and incredible skill) counter-tenor Robin Blaze. And if you know Neal Davies and Paul Agnew, you pretty much have a perfect cast. The pure "gravy" element comes, however, with the addition of Susan Bickley, one of those rare mezzos who is genuinely soft and gentle on the ear while never sacrificing vocality. She is the kind of alto you loved sitting next to in choir, something of Anne Sophie Von Otter's warmth, and wonderfully expressive. Great chorus, great conducting, a worthy addition to Handelian output and recordings.