Biblical tale of Godly sacrifice

Doomed daughter:  Fflur Wyn as Iphis, right, with Laura Pooley from the WNO Chorus.

Pictures: Bill Cooper

 Jephtha

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

HANDEL'S  Jephtha is not one of the most performed or best known productions in the operatic tool box which, in a week which sees WNO present La bohème  and Cosi Fan Tutte, probably  explains a less than capacity crowd for what is a fine production of this Baroque piece.

Strictly this is a religious oratorio rather than an opera – it even ends on a soaring Amen - and was Handel's last. The  baroque traits of endless repetition in the libretto, a simplistic story line which takes a shade over three hours to tell and limited character development and drama are not to everyone's tastes. You are not really encouraged to become emotionally involved as in Tosca or one of this week's current season, La bohème.

Mind you it is hard to feel for someone willing to sacrifice his own daughter, or indeed someone else's, to God as the price of winning a battle or indeed for a daughter who is willing to let him kill her without a murmur.

But on the obverse we have a simplicity in the music which always seems to have a splendour and a clean, period sound under conductor Paul Goodwin and the excellent WNO orchestra, furthermore the oratorio is full of Handel's engaging music with his trademark, majestic choral work along with intricate duets and a splendid quartet in the third act. Unmistakably Handel this is almost like  Messiah – The Musical, 18th century style..

For those who know their Old Testament and Judges in particular  Jephtha was the illegitimate son of a professional lady, as in oldest profession, and was driven out by his half brothers.

But as old  Jephtha turned out to be the best soldier around, a sort of Israeli Wellington, and Israel was at war and threatened by the Ammonites and all of its old guard of the army generals killed in battle,  it seemed a good idea to decide all was forgiven and  Jephtha was called back by his brother Zebul to lead the nation into battle.

Unwisely  Jephtha made a pact with God that if he won he would sacrifice the first living thing he saw. Now, had he filled in a risk assessment form he might have spotted that such a deal might have a few drawbacks – but no, on he ploughed, won the war and on his return the first living thing he saw was his daughter Iphis . . . oops.

Fflur Wyn, who is wonderful as Iphis, celebrates her father's return little knowing her rush to greet him has signed her death warrant

In Handel's version with a libretto by Thomas Morell, just as Iphis is about to be despatched to meet her maker an angel pops up to say the daughter no longer needs to be sacrificed and merely dedicating her life to God, and er,  oh yes, with a vow of chastity, would be acceptable in heaven.

In the Old Testament version there is no angelic reprieve and Iphis pays the price of her father's rashness with her life which, let's be honest, would beat dying of consumption in a chilly Paris garret in the list of all-time tragic opera deaths.

But, then again, that would perhaps not go down as well with the original opening night audience at the premiere in Covent Garden in 1752. Mind you modern scholars do question the original translation of the Bible and many now favour the chastity line over the sacrifice.

Chaste or sacrificed, Fflur Wyn is a wonderful   Iphis with her Farewell, ye limpid springs and floods as she accepts her fate one of the highlights.

Robert Murray as  Jephtha has a light tenor suited to the role and Handel's Baroque score while Hamor, who is betrothed to Iphis, is sung by Andrew Radley, who has a clear and powerful countertenor, that most unusual of male voices.

His duets with Iphis are a delight with the two voices blending so well including the final Freely I to Heav'n resign. With everyone celebrating Iphis's life being saved the only people not too sure about the deal are Iphis, who was now lumbered with a life of chastity, and her betrothed Hamor. Hardly the best of dowries.

Radley, Murray, and Diane Montague as the mother, Storgè,  and baritone Alan Ewing, as  Jephtha's brother Zebul, produce that wonderful quartet  mentioned earlier Oh Spare Your Daughter.

The original 2003 WNO production was directed by Katie Mitchell with Robin Tebbutt as the revival director and it is set sometime in the 1940s, zoot suits and trilbies, while the set, designed by Vicki Mortimer , looks like it could be an undiscovered alcove in Grand Central Station, Art Deco, solid and huge with a sweeping staircase which gives added visual interest and is somewhere for the angel, played by Claire Ormshaw,  to exit – the original Stairway to Heaven perhaps? 

LIGHTER MOMENT

There is not a lot of fun in  Jephtha, it is more depressing than uplifting with the only lighter moment, perhaps unintentionally, when Storgè pleads with her husband to spare Japtha and drags some poor soul out of the crowd and suggests the unfortunate creature would do just as well for a sacrifice.

The costumes give the authentic feel of a 40s gangster movie although the return from the victorious battle is a bit Home Guard with uniforms, apart from one beret clad soldier in combats - Moshe Guevere perhaps – seeming to consist of the suit you were wearing earlier with the addition of a haversack and the odd rifle.

That being said this is another sumptuous production from WNO, always visually interesting with an excellent  chorus who are always alive rather than statues waiting to sing, and always providing little dramas in the background. The production also employs the cinematic fade out, as with a three leaf shutter, employed so successfully in Katya Kabanova, another Mitchell/Tebbutt revival

Whether baroque opera, strictly religious oratorio, is to your taste or not the quality cannot be denied and successfully widens the repertoire of WNO. 07-11-12.

The autumn season continues with La bohème on Nov 8 and 10 and Cosi fan tutte on Nov 9.

Roger Clarke 

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