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31 Aug 2019

Prom 55: Handel's Jephtha

‘For many it is the masterpiece among his oratorios.’

Prom 55: The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, SCO Chorus, conductor Richard Egarr and soloists perform Handel’s Jephtha.

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, SCO Chorus, conductor Richard Egarr and soloists

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou


Ruth Smith’s assessment of Handel’s last wholly new oratorio, Jephtha, has not been shared by all her fellow Handel scholars. Composed by the aging composer in 1751, during a time when the onset of blindness forced Handel to put the score aside for a while, Jephtha has been criticised mainly on account of what is perceived to be Thomas Morell’s weak libretto. The substitution of a lieto fine courtesy of a descending angel for the Old Testament’s brutal sacrifice of a military hero’s daughter was judged by Paul Lang to be ‘nearly fatal to the oratorio’, and by Winton Dean to lend ‘a morbid emphasis on virginity’.

Interestingly, the story of Jephtha, the leader of the Israelites who inadvertently and tragically vows the sacrifice of his daughter after a victory against the heathen Ammonites, drew the attention of Voltaire (in the Philosophical Dictionary) who viewed it as confirmation that his ‘Enlightened’ contemporaries should strive for a civilised humanism in contrast to such biblical brutalities and barbarism (and as an opportunity to attack the Jesuits). But, as Smith has observed, Morell was a poet, an Anglican priest and a Doctor of Divinity, and as such was, in contrast, concerned to use the oratorio form as a ‘contribution to the defence of Christianity’.

Allan Clayton (Jephtha).JPGAllan Clayton (Jephtha). Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

In this swift and sometimes rather stern Proms performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and SCO Chorus, conducted by Richard Egarr, such moral and theological issues were essentially by-the-by; and, as Egarr strove for energy and momentum perhaps, too, some of the work’s human anguish was glossed over, and the emotional interaction between the protagonists in this tragedy-turned-triumph weakened. But, this was still a compelling account, characterised by superb choral singing and the direct communication of events by a well-matched and accomplished team of soloists.

I haven’t always found that Handel’s oratorios and operas ‘work’ well in the Royal Albert Hall: last year’s Theodora (also with a libretto by Morell), for example, was somewhat lacking in dramatic impact and propulsion. On this occasion, sensibly, what I described as the ‘exquisitely beautiful poise and sensitivity’ of the period-instrument Arcangelo was replaced by the more urgent, impulsive and vibrant sound of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - a sound which carried with more vigour, with punchy accentuation, strong dynamic contrasts and strikingly dark colourings at times, though Egarr ensured that the strings’ bowing was idiomatically stylish, and the tone did not lack Baroque bite.

Many numbers were omitted (particularly choruses - even one reproduced in the Proms programme was excised) and da capos were frequently truncated or deprived of their contrasting B sections - but the swiftness bestowed a freshness and resolve fitting for this dramatic episode from the Book of Judges, in which Jephtha accepts the Elders’ entreaty that he lead Israel in war against the tyrannical Ammonites on condition that he remain Israel’s leader after the war, and vows that if he is victorious then the first thing that greets him on his return home will be Jehovah’s, offered as a burnt sacrifice. Morell created additional characters - Storgè and Zebul, Jephtha's wife and brother respectively, and Hamor, a young soldier in love with Iphis (Jephtha’s daughter, so-named by Morell).

It was a pity, though, that the SCO Chorus’ contribution was curtailed, so spirited were they as priests, virgins and commentators, so vivid are Handel’s choruses. The diction of the collective was superb - no mean feat in the RAH - and each time the choric voices entered there was a dramatic and emotive ‘uplift’: from their first optimistic denunciation of the Ammonites whose demise they brightly anticipate; to the imitative intensity - wonderfully sculpted by Egarr - of the end-of-Act 1 pugnacious eagerness - coloured richly by the horns; to the skilfully balanced vocal reflections on the Lord’s decrees which follow Jephtha’s acknowledgement that his vow must be fulfilled. Here, the strings’ tight dotted-rhythms accrued a tension which exploded with the tenors’ and sopranos’ culminating vehement blast, “Whatever is, is right”. Emphasising, through silence and disjointedness, the shocking bluntness of this cry, Egarr paradoxically and provokingly suggested doubt rather than moral or theological certainty.

Cody Quattlebaum bass-baritone (Zebul).JPGCody Quattlebaum (Zebul). Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Cody Quattlebaum’s firm bass-baritone was the first solo voice that we heard and, as Zebul, his eloquence and directness was an engaging invitation to the drama. In the title role, Allan Clayton’s relaxed legato line conveyed an assured authority without imperiousness, though perhaps he did not entirely convince as a ‘military hero’. Egarr, almost hyperactive in his multi-role as harpsichordist, conductor and energiser, ensured that the SCO contributed much to the emotional spirit of the arias, and one could appreciate this in Jephtha’s Act 2 ‘Open thy marble jaws, O tomb’, when he realises the nature of the sacrifice his vow will compel him to make; here, the tautness of the unison strings’ rhythms and the darkly driving cello and bass line in the B section of the da capo conveyed all of victorious warrior’s inner conflict between resistance and submission. Similarly, reflecting on the pain that pierces “a father’s bleeding heart” when confronted with Iphis’ acceptance of her fate, Jephtha’s plaguing guilt was evoked by the strings’ full, emphatic pulsing beneath Clayton’s resolute melody. In contrast, ‘Waft her, angels, through the skies’ - one of Handel’s supreme, time-stopping melodies - unfurled with exquisite beauty and lightness.

Tim Mead (Hamor).JPG Tim Mead (Hamor). Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

As Hamor, counter-tenor Tim Mead was as, if not more, impressive, singing with sweetness and strength of his unfulfilled passion for Iphis’, and finding a wealth of colour in his duet with his beloved. In the latter role, soprano Jeanine De Bique displayed a pleasing tone and a clear focus, communicating a fitting purity and innocence but lacked variety of colour and nuance. Her final aria, ‘Farewell, ye limpid springs and floods’ did not suggest the inner torment that Iphis surely must feel, despite her avowed anticipation of heavenly peace.

Both De Bique and Hilary Summers struggled a little to project to the far reaches of the Hall, but Summers was a composed and very expressive Storgè, whose maternal reflections on the injustice of her daughter’s fate were compelling - again, the emotional import was underscored by Egarr’s encouragement of the double basses’ dark throbbing.

The ensembles were urgent, the Act II quartet surging segue from Hamor’s aria in which he offers his own life to save Iphis, and the Act III quintet bursting with joy. (Donald Burrows suggest that this quintet ‘All that is in Hamor mine’ - not ‘is mine’ as misprinted in the programme - is of doubtful authorship and was added in 1756.) The angelus ex machina had intervened in the form of Rowan Pierce’s sparkling, soaring saviour, promising Jephtha that he can fulfil his vow without sacrificing his daughter … if he dedicates her to God in ‘Pure, angelic, virgin-state’, for ever. One might question the ‘happiness’ of this ending, especially on Hamor’s behalf, but here the jubilant voices of the SCO Chorus rang out, rejoicingly, “in blessings manifold”.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Jephtha

Jephtha - Allan Clayton, Iphis - Jeanine De Bique, Storgè - Hilary Summers, Hamor - Tim Mead, Zebul - Cody Quattlebaum, Angel - Rowan Pierce, Conductor - Richard Egarr, Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus and Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Royal Albert Hall, South Kensington, London; Friday 30th August 2019.

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