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Manchester music reviews

Welsh National Opera - Jephtha

Jephtha by Welsh National Opera

Reviewed by Denis Joe October 2012

Cast includes
Jephtha: Robert Murray
Zebul: Alan Ewing
Storge: Diana Montague
Iphis: Fflur Wyn
Hamor: Robin Blaze (ex 7 Nov); Andrew Radley (7 Nov)
Angel: Claire Ormshaw

Katie Mitchell’s operatic staging (this Revival Director: Robin Tebbutt) of Jephtha was first produced in 2003, was first revived in 2006 and WNO have thankfully felt it worthy of restaging.


The story is, on the face of it, quite straight forward. Having been asked by the Israelites to lead the forces against the Ammonites, Jephtha makes a vow to God, that if he is victorious then he will sacrifice the first person who comes to greet him after the battle. Tragically that person is his daughter Iphis. The libretto, by Revd. Thomas Morrell (largely derived from the Old Testament story as interpreted by the Scottish poet George Buchanan) provides us with an extra character, Iphis’ fiancée Hamor and gives the ending a rather strange twist, in that an angel allows Iphis to live if she devotes her virginal life to God. If the original biblical story seemed morally questionable, Morrell’s revision gave the story an even greater complexity.


The overture is unmistakably Handel, borrowed from the incidental music he had composed for Tobias Smollett’s tragedy, Alceste: a majestic procession which moves to a greater urgency. It captures well the action that we are to encounter as if both tempos represented a sort of pondering about what needs to be done whilst there is a clamour demanding that action needs to be taken. The high string section and woodwind sections carry most of the argument until the overture ends on a Minuet, that is almost waltz-like, and the curtain is raised.


JephthaDirector Katie Mitchell has transposed the story of Jephtha to, what appears to be, late 1940s Europe, and has set the action in a bombarded hotel. The piece opens with a recitative (It must be so . . .) which is sung by Jephtha's half-brother, Zebul. For 18 years the Israelites have been subjugated by the Ammonites and have turned to worshipping false idols. They now see their only chance of victory is to call in Jephtha, who he and his brothers had thrown out of Israel for being the bastard son of their father (True. we have slighted, scorn'd, expell'd him hence,/As of a stranger born; but well I know him;/His gen'rous soul disdains a mean revenge./When his distressful country calls his aid./And, perhaps, heav'n may favour our request/If with repentant hearts we sue for mercy).

Jephtha is summoned from exile with his wife, Storgé and his daughter Iphis. He agrees to lead the Israelite army on condition that he is allowed to continue as leader of his country following his victory. Saying farewell to his wife and daughter precipitates one of the most beautiful moments from any Handel work I can think of. Storgé’s recitative, 'Twill be a painful separation, Jephtha and aria In gentle murmurs will I mourn provide the most heart-rending moments in this exceptional work. The mezzo-soprano, Diana Montague, gave such great depth to these moments, that there were gasps throughout the house when she had finished. Whilst I have seen and heard many great moments in Handel’s works, there was nothing, that I recall, to match this.


Hamor, who is betrothed to Iphis will follow Jephtha into battle. Caught between the glory of battle and his love for Iphis, Hamor (sung wonderfully by the countertenor Robin Blaze) tries to engage her in the glory this will bring (Happy this embassy, my charming Iphis) but Iphis (majestically sung by the soprano Fflur Wyn) is not convinced (Ill suits the voice of love when glory calls).


Worried about the outcome of the battle and unable to make a treaty with the Ammonites, Jephtha, privately bargains with God (If, Lord, sustain'd by thy almighty pow'r,/Ammon I drive, and his insulting hands,/From these our long,-uncultivated lands,/And safe return a glorious conquer;/What, or whoe'er shall first salute mine eyes,/Shall be forever thine, or fall a sacrifice).


At the beginning of Part 2 Hamor rushes to tell, Iphis of her father’s triumph (Glad tidings of great joy to thee, dear Iphis,/and to the house of Israel, I bring.) The celebrations begin for the welcome of the hero, but tragedy strikes Jephtha as the first person to greet him is his daughter. Jephtha falls into despair as he realises the folly of his promise to God (Open thy marble jaws, O tomb!/And hide me, earth, in thy dark womb:/Ere I the name of father stain,/And deepest woe from conquest gain.) and we are left in no doubt the it is the personal anguish that has overawed the father.


Jephtha tells everyone about the vow he made to God. All about his attempt to dissuade him from carrying out his promise, but he cannot. And it is here that the morality of the Oratorio becomes clear and it is centred on the character of Iphis as she convinces her father that she will allow herself to be sacrificed for God and for Country. The whole community is stricken by Jephtha’s determination to carry out his vow and part two ends with one of Handel’s greatest chorus pieces, ironically, it is believed, his blindness stopped him from further work on How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees I/All hid from mortal sight!. Though he was well enough to begin part 3, ten days later.


In Part 3, the whole community prepares for the sacrifice of Iphis and plead with God for guidance (Doubtful fear, and reverent awe,/Strike us, Lord, while here we bow;/Check'd by thy all-sacred law,/Yet commanded by the vow./In this distress, Lord, hear our pray'r,/And thy determin'd will declare). Just as Iphis is being taken for sacrifice an angel appears and stops the proceedings. The angel decrees that Iphis will be spared but she must devote the rest of her life to chastity in the service of God.


Jephtha by WNOThe end of Part 3 closes with a chorus but not before a quintet of the central characters:


All that is in Hamor mine,
Freely I to heav'n resign.


All that is in Iphis mine,
Freely I to heav'n resign.


Duteous to the will supreme.
Still my Hamor I'll esteem.


Duteous t-l Almighty pow r,
Still my Iphis I'll adore.


Joys triumphant crown thy days,
And thy name eternal praise.


The ending of Jephtha is not the story from the Bible (Judges 11), in which Jephtha’s daughter is killed and also in the version by George Buchanan. It is interesting to ask why a man of the cloth, took such liberties with the story, not only by changing the end, but also bringing in new characters such as Hamor and the Angel and giving Jephtha’s wife and daughter names. It is obvious that Revd. Thomas Morrell was a product of enlightened times. Jephtha’s vow is still open to interpretation and it is seen as a rather troubling passage from the Old Testament (see What About Jephthah’s Vow?). Morrell was a product of the more enlightened approach towards religion that was a feature of the 18th Century. Afriend of William Hogarth as well as a scholar of the classics (which he drew on when writing the libretto to Jephtha,) his reinterpretation of Jephtha’s vow makes perfect sense. It was not just the ambiguity of the wording of the vow that allowed for its wide interpretation, but also that the idea of a wrathful God was not one that would have favoured his liberal sensibilities or those of the rising bourgeoisie.


The message of the oratorio is more to do with duty than it is to satisfying the ego of some deity. And this is why the character of Iphis is central to the whole theme of Jephtha. It seemed that Morrell saw duty of primary importance and whilst Jephtha may appear to be the hero in all this, it is the woman’s avowal of her sense of duty to God and Country which is the message that Handel’s more enlightened audience would approve of. This was the period in which Britain as a modern nation, was coming into being. And it is interesting that nationalist feeling, through opera, was inspired by the Old Testament and the struggle of the Jews (one need only think of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, "Va, pensiero", from Verdi’s opera Nabucco)


However for today’s audience the exacting of a promise of a life of chastity would appear equally as barbaric as her being sacrificed, and it was notable (almost comical) that we were left in no doubt that whatever Iphis may say about devoting her life to God, the vocal tone and facial expression of Fflur Wyn told us that this was not her idea of a reprieve.


And this brings me to the point about staging oratorios as opera. Opera already allows for action to take place on the stage. However in the oratorio – because they were not presented as dramatic, but were simply sung, thus allowing them to be performed in churches - we are informed of the action by the singers. So for an opera director the staging of an oratorio as a drama presents some difficulties. Most importantly one must bring human actions (in the manner of acting) onto the stage. This, in itself, requires a great deal of scripting and it is not always successful as characters can be left standing around  doing nothing whilst a singer is letting the audience know what is going on.


I have seen a number of staged oratorios in the past and whilst they may have had wonderful music, singing and set design, they lacked the driving force of the drama that is central to opera, and as such, were pretty boring to watch.


There were moments in WNO’s Jephtha when I felt that this was happening. There were a few moments when those on the stage would look through a door for, what appeared to be, no other reason than to provide a sense of drama or just movement. But then there were other times, such as Jephtha’s anguished and anger in Part 2 that showed Robert Murray to be, not just an exceptional singer, but also to be a convincing actor whose presence dominated throughout.


Welsh National Opera have certainly triumphed with this production of Jephtha. I attended this production with a friend and I had some concerns, as someone who was not familiar with early music – and I think that much early music can be as ‘difficult’ as contemporary music - that she would not enjoy it. Fortunately I need not have been concerned. Jephtha is Handel’s greatest oratorio: full of emotional intensity and some of Handel’s greatest music. The cast and staging are up there with the most exacting of WNO productions. It is easy to see why the Getty Foundation have donated £1.2m to the company. It is a rare opportunity to experience this outstanding work and one that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys the experience of opera.

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