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The Return of Jephtha by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini [Source: Wikipedia]
02 Oct 2012

Handel Jephtha, Welsh National Opera

Welsh National Opera have revived Katie Mitchell’s 2003 production of Handel’s Jephtha, with Robert Murray in the title role and a new focus for the drama.

George Frederick Handel : Jephtha

Jephtha:Robert Murray, Storge:Diana Montague, Iphis:Fflur Wyn, Hamor:Robin Blaze, Angel:Claire Ormshaw, Director:Katie Mitchell, Revival Director:Robin Tebbutt, Designer:Vicki Mortimer, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Conductor:Paul Goodwin

Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff, Wales, 22nd September 2012

Above: The Return of Jephtha by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini [Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.


The revival, now directed by Robin Tebbutt, opened at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff.

Now, the first thing to say is that Jephtha is not strictly an opera. It was written for performance in the theatre, but as a concert piece. Using a familiar biblical story, the work was intended to point a moral and be uplifting. Handel’s librettist, the Revd Thomas Morrell, was also a scholar and translator of Greek drama. In his compressing and re-casting of the biblical story Morrell introduced elements from Greed dramas. Not feeling bound by the classical unities of time and place, Morrell’s libretto ranges more freely and can feel modern at times. But another important feature of Handelian oratorio was what one might term the tableaux element. The say the dialogue is pared down to minimum, providing the audience with a series of set pieces and relying on Handel’s music and the audience’s knowledge of the plot to fill in the emotional gaps.

This means that, though Handel’s genius is innately dramatic, a sequence of long arias and even longer choruses with little dialogue is not easy to stage. At the Buxton Opera Festival this summer the director Frederic Wake-Walker staged Jephtha in a pared down, semi-abstract fashion, which evoked powerful reactions (both positive and negative). Katie Mitchell chose to fill in the background to the story, providing a detailed scenario which took place whilst the music was happening. As with Mitchell’s other opera productions, there was much busyness and coming and going, almost as if Mitchell felt that she could not leave the music to itself very often. Her production of Jephtha was placed in a war torn 1940’s society. The setting, designed by Vicki Mortimer, used two different spaces in a grand mansion which was badly bombed. There were few private moments, the chorus was on stage for much of the time and even in the quieter moments, servants came and went and Fflur Wyn’s Iphis was constantly chaperoned.

The result emphasised the role of Jephtha (Robert Murray) and his wife Storge (Diana Montague) as public figures, leaders of a war torn country. Nothing they could do was entirely private. The drawback to this was that sometimes, you wished that singers could be let alone. Diana Montague’s delivery of Scenes of Horror was brilliantly intense, but I’m not sure having her pawed over by her ladies in waiting made the drama any stronger. On the other hand, Mitchell developed the relationship between Iphis (Wynn) and Hamor (Robin Blaze) in a way which helped the drama. The role of Hamor can be seen as something of a cypher; he needs to be there simply to give Iphis a reminder of what she is missing when she remains ever virgin at the end.

But here, in the first duet there was a distinct feeling of anticipation as Wyn showed Blaze her wedding outfit. Then in the second act Blaze gave Wyn a ring. Both singers managed to make the relationship charmingly clear and give a real impression of love snatched in war time.

And there were moments of calm. When Murray made his vow in act one, he was alone with just the Angel present (Claire Ormshaw’s angel featured far more in the drama than in the libretto). In fact the angel whispered the words of the vow into his ear. It was a moment of calm, which enhanced the quiet intensity of Murray’s delivery.

And during the quartet, Mitchell had the four singer (Alan Ewing, Diana Montague, Fflur Wyn and Robin Blaze) gathered round Murray, who was poised to sign the document condemning his daughter; again, a moment of stasis which emphasised this extraordinary moment. Extraordinary in many ways, notably as one of Handel’s rare ensemble numbers, here sung with a feeling of intensity and a fine sense of line.

But the most extra-ordinary moment in the entire drama was when Murray sang Waft her angels. He sang it not as an invocation to God, but quietly into his daughter’s ear whilst he held her and then bound her eyes, with the chorus looking on in horror.

The draw back with Mitchells’ approach was that sometimes the music did not match what she wanted from the drama. I can forgive the numerous stage noises and bells in the earlier acts. But in act three both Blaze and Montague had explosively vocal spoken (even shouted) outbursts, clearly remedying what Mitchell felt was lacking in the music. Then when Murray finally pushed Wyn from off stage to be executed, he shouted ‘Go, go go’, which disturbed the mood, the music and drama.

Murray was a very human hero, very much an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. In his first aria his passagework was rather uneven, but by his second he had found form. He was not intense zealot, but exhibited a dogged faith, trying to do the right thing. Wearing a series of 1940’s boxy overcoats, he cut a solid, rather stolid figure. His vow was given out of desperation rather than fervour. And, as I have said, Waft her angels was extraordinary, delivered with quiet control with Murray exhibiting some of the most beautiful singing of the evening.

His voice had a tendency to develop a strong vibrato under pressure, a characteristic which you could find expressive of intrusive depending on taste.

As his wife, Diana Montague was a warm, dignified figure but clearly with her emotions on a thread. So that Scene of horror and her act three outburst were indicators of anxieties bubbling under. Both arias were sung with great beauty and affine sense of line, illuminating Storge’s stage of mind.

Wyn made a delightful Iphis for the first half of the drama, bringing out the character with very real charm and presence, plus some very find singing of Handel’s vocal lines. Robin Blaze was similarly in fine voice, and the two sparked a very real relationship. In fact Blaze seemed to be on great form, blazing forth brilliantly in the upper register. For the second half of the drama, both singer found a darker vein with Wyn displaying some very powerful dramatic reserves.

Alan Ewing made a brave attempt at Jephtha’s brother Zebul. Though he conveyed Zebul’s nobleness and essential decency, Ewing did have a tendency to bluster his way through the arias.

Claire Ormshaw was a very sympathetic Angel, a character whom Mitchell made very much the presiding genius of the drama.

The chorus were committed participants in all the drama, providing many of the small roles with which Mitchell articulated the story. They did this with convincing flair. The choruses were sung with quite a big sound, with the odd moment of untidiness. But the converse was of course that the choruses developed real power at moments of high drama.

Under Paul Goodwin, the WNO orchestra provided clean lively accompaniment. Not quite historically informed, but certainly rather stylish; though the opening of the overture did take some time to settle. There were odd ensemble problems, particularly when complex choruses required busy stage action.

A harpsichord was credited, but I barely heard it. Certainly the overture seemed lacking in audible keyboard continuo. If modern instruments are to be used then a solution needs to be found to provide keyboard continuo suitable. And there were also moments where organ was used as continuo in the recitatives instead of harpsichord.

Mitchell’s production, as revived by Robin Tebbutt, brought out the sheer horror of what Jephtha’s action meant in a contemporary society. The very real and detailed setting gave a corrective backdrop to the mythic action. The cast for this revival provided some fine Handelian singing indeed and some powerfully intense drama.

Robert Hugill

Click here for a video trailer of this production.

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