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Fflur Wyn as Iphis [Photo by Bill Cooper]
05 Dec 2012

WNO proves a point with Handel’s Jeptha

They say that there’s nothing worse than a musically-obtuse staging of any opera to put a rookie opera-goer off a composer (or even opera itself) for life.

WNO proves a point with Handel’s Jeptha

A review by Sue Loder

Above: Fflur Wyn as Iphis [Photo by Bill Cooper]

 

Poor Handel’s marvellous music has suffered in recent years with some truly awful productions just in the UK alone (no names, no pack-drill) where misguided directors just couldn’t bear to trust a master word-painter and consummate entertainer. Some of his finest operas have almost crumbled beneath the autocratic boot of boorish self-aggrandisement or misplaced comedic ambition. Thank heaven then — pardon the allusion — for his later oratorios based on mainly Old Testament themes where the story lines and libretti have largely avoided the hand of The Director mainly because they have not been seen as very stage-able — at least not until the last ten or so years. Thank heaven also then for directors such as Katie Mitchell and companies such as Welsh National who back in 2003 created what must now be regarded as a classic of this genre, oratorio staged as opera: Handel’s Jeptha. This production truly lets the music live and breathe, yet with its 20th century setting in a vaguely mid-European 1940’s wartime, it also usefully reflects the original martial/royalist background of Handel and librettist Morell’s time. They were writing for an audience who perfectly understood the sub-texts; pulling the story into our own time allows today’s audience to ponder our own dilemmas and recent history in relation to the human and religious angst portrayed on the stage.

Revived for at least the second time, and on tour this Autumn, Mitchell’s original production has stood the test of recent times exceedingly well and, since the 2006 outing which boasted truly world-class vocalists (Mark Padmore, Iestyn Davies and Susan Bickley to name but three), all but one of the singers has changed. So, it was a good chance with this final performance of the run to hear the new voices in the roles and look back on old notes and, inevitably, compare.

Interestingly, one of the two most likeable singers at Bristol Hippodrome’s performance on 27th November was the sole returnee from 2006: soprano Fflur Wyn as Jeptha’s daughter Iphis who has now grown into a wonderful young singer in this repertory. She has a silvery shimmer to her voice which remains at all levels of her dynamic range (which is considerable) and her command of the specifics of Handel’s music — the fiendish divisions contrasting with melting legato — is now consummate. Matching her in both these elements of her own, lower-lying, music was mezzo soprano Diana Montague as Jeptha’s wife Storge, who was in marvellous form; her “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe…” were a master-class in dramatic singing.

The male roles of the piece, tenor Robert Murray as Jeptha, countertenor Robin Blaze as Hamor and bass Alan Ewing as Zebul, didn’t fare quite as well although Blaze certainly won the “handelian style” competition outright. His straight, rather green timbre isn’t perhaps to everyone’s taste, but he can certainly sing Handel in a way that brooks no argument. Still looking ridiculously youthful, his many years of experience really showed. Ewing’s portrayal of Jeptha’s half-brother Zebul was dramatically excellent but his bass seemed to struggle somewhat with the passage-work and this detracted from the overall effect. In the title role — and tenors don’t exactly proliferate in Handel’s title roles — Robert Murray, who is not known for his Handel, worked hard to establish this quite tricky character’s personality but seemed in the first Act to be struggling vocally to get his voice around the music. This improved with time, but a tightening of the voice in the higher registers was worrying as this also seemed to affect his legato singing. The “signature” tune of the piece is of course the famous “Waft her, angels, through the skies” which is very high and here, glad to say, Murray gained a quiet, but mellifluous head voice which was workmanlike, if not memorably mesmerising as this music can be in the hands of a true Handelian tenor. Claire Ormshaw, as the deus ex machina Angel who saves Iphis’s life in the dying minutes of the work, sang affectingly and effectively in the short-but-vital role.

In some operas, the chorus can be a mixed blessing but in a Handel oratorio — staged as here, or not — it should be a real ornament and an essential ingredient in the dramatic mix. WNO chorus was simply first class; their acting and their singing would be hard to beat anywhere in the world and they were truly integrated into the action in every way at every turn of events. For most of the run Paul Goodwin had conducted but on this particular night Thomas Blunt took over the WNO orchestra in elegant and effective style and proved most considerate of the singers throughout whilst keeping the tempi accurate and sound most stylish. I have no doubt that this is a production which will open many people’s eyes to the marvels of Handel’s music and perhaps encourage them to re-assess their view of the oratorio as a musical form.

Sue Loder

Click here for cast and production information.

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