Handel wrote Theodora during his last period of composition. He was sixty-four years old when he began working on it in June 1749. He had written the oratorios Solomon and Susanna the previous year. Theodorawould be his penultimate oratorio.
Theodora differs from the former two oratorios because it is a tragedy, ending in the death of the heroine and her converted lover. The music is much more direct than the earlier works, transcending the mediocrity of the libretto (which was true for several of Handel's works) so that the characters and the drama are well-defined.
Thomas Morell (1703–1784) had worked with Handel before on several oratorios. He and Handel were good friends; the composer left the librettist 200 pounds in his will. Morell's source for the libretto was The Martyrdom of Theodora and of Didymus (1687) by Robert Boyle, the scientist. He also borrowed from Corneille's Théodore, Vierge et Martyre. Morell arguably improved on Boyle, eliminating the moralising messages and creating a better structure.
Handel finished the oratorio on 31 July 1749, and its premiere was on 16 March 1750. Pityingly, Theodora was a failure and only played three times. There are at least two explanations for this. First, the theme of persecution may have been too "progressive" for Londoners at the time. Secondly,an earthquake that transpired about a week before the premiere had prevented some of the city's nobility from coming. It was the least performed of all his oratorios, being revived only once in 1755.
There are two surviving quotes of Handel about Theodora. Morell quotes Handel as saying "The Jews will not come to it because it is a Christian story; and the ladies will not come because it is a virtuous one." Handel's colleague Burney took note when two musicians asked for free tickets for Messiah and Handel responded "Oh your servant, meine Herren! you are damnable dainty! you would not go to Theodora - there was room enough to dance there, when that was perform"!
Theodora was actually Handel's favorite of his oratorios. The composer himself ranked the final chorus of Act II, "He saw the lovely youth," "far beyond" "Hallelujah" in Messiah.
It has sometimes been staged as an opera, most notably in the highly acclaimed 1996 production by Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne. This production, conducted by William Christie, starred Dawn Upshaw as Theodora, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Irene and David Daniels as Didymus. It has been issued on DVD by Warner Music.