05/17/2003 - and 23 May, 4 June 2003
George Frideric Handel: Jephtha
Mark Padmore (Jephtha), Christopher Purves (Zebul), Susan Bickley (Storge), Sarah Tynan (Iphis), Daniel Taylor (Hamor), Charlotte Ellett (Angel)
Paul McCreesh (conductor), Katie Mitchell (director)
WNO Orchestra and Chorus
Jephtha, based closely on Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, in principle looks like the Handel oratorio best suited for staging. There are at least two substantial operas that cover similar emotional and spiritual ground, the crisis of a parent forced by (perceived) divine will to kill a child: Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide and Mozart's Idomeneo. But these operas are far from mainstream: Iphigénie en Aulide is rarely performed, and Idomeneo is often presented primarily as a showcase for the singers rather than a theatrical drama. All three works involve confrontation not just with the cruelties of fate or divine will, as in many tragedies, but with the terrifying possibility of choosing, rationally, to kill your own child for the good of the community. As Greek or biblical myth or Christian ritual, this is difficult enough; as realistic drama it could be unbearable.
In Jephtha, in addition, there is the paradox that the people who are to be saved by the sacrifice have just defined themselves by their refusal to perform human sacrifice. What sort of salvation does Jephtha obtain for them if he goes through with his daughter's death? Is he sacrificing himself by proxy to redeem them fully, or dooming them to remain murderers as they were under the Ammonites? Moreover, it is not clear until the end whether Jephtha interprets the vow correctly when he sees it as forcing him to kill his daughter, and it is never made explicit whether his misinterpretation is admirable in the divine order of things, like Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, or monstrous. Handel and his librettist Thomas Morell perhaps come close here to identifying Freud's Thanatos, death as a positive force, at work. And it pervades the relationships in Jephtha's family: his wife Storge mourns his absence like death, dreams of nameless horrors and demands the death of every living creature; Hamor, the betrothed of Jephtha's daughter Iphis, offers himself as a substitute; and Iphis herself accepts death for the good of her country, echoing Jephtha's understanding of the situation even though it is actually highly ambiguous. Jephtha merges personal, political and theological drama so thoroughly that putting its substance on stage seems close to impossible.
The director Katie Mitchell has succeeded in both Greek drama and Janacek, however, and has as good a chance as anybody of staging Jephtha. Her new production for the Welsh National Opera (co-produced with the English National Opera) provides an ingenious context in which the action can take place more or less realistically. The setting is somewhere in war-torn Europe in the 1940s, and the people of Israel are a resistance movement or a government in exile, seizing their chance to throw off the (always unseen) occupiers of their country. The implicit identification of the Ammonites with the Nazis provides a vivid sense of the crisis of national survival and identity. The shabbily elegant set is modelled on a fashion photograph of a wedding dress in a bombed out hotel in London, and, although nothing in the production identifies the Israelites specifically with the British people as Handel's audience would have, the possibility is always there. The production has a kind of sepia-noir aesthetic that is fascinating in itself, and full of wit and grim humour, although the overall effect is perhaps closer to the retro absurdities of Rainer Werner Fassbinder than to the glassy terror-in-everyday-life of high American noir.
The most difficult thing for a director who doesn't want to evade the key questions of Jephtha is how to represent the will of God at work. Mitchell bravely puts the angel on stage throughout most of the action, in the form of an androgynous youth, in period dress but with wings. The angel stage manages Jephtha's vow, and writes it down, then remains (wearing a great-coat with vestigial wings) until the end of act two, reacting to Jephtha's actions. It was never quite clear from the angel's reactions at the first performance how wrong Jephtha was meant to be, although the angel's absence during the preparation for the sacrifice in act three suggests that it doesn't have divine approval. Catherine Ellett was wonderfully mysterious as the angel, avoiding any sense of cuteness, and the concept isn't out of place in the 1940s setting, although it invokes sentimental romantic comedy (The Bishop's Wife, It's a wonderful life) as well as, more appropriately, Cocteau's angels, like Heurtebise in Orphée.
The singers, faced with the strange task of singing Handel's highly rhetorical music as part of a cinematic drama, performed superbly, as did the WNO chorus in a series of extremely complex set pieces. Sarah Tynan as Iphis was heartbreaking in her freshness and straightforwardness. She is not necessarily an experienced Handel singer but she sang everything as if she meant it. Susan Bickley, who has been masterly in both Handel and Janacek in the past, was searing as Storge, here characterized as emotionally fragile throughout rather than raging. Amazingly, she succeeded in singing the music as if it were realistic. Christopher Purves was solid as the charismatically challenged Zebul, and Daniel Taylor was almost charming as a very youthful Hamor. Mark Padmore as Jephtha acted with great intensity -- you couldn't miss the way he gripped his chair as Iphis appeared to greet him -- but there were moments when his acting and (excellent) singing were in different places.
At the end of this Jephtha, everything is almost as bad as it would be if Iphis were dead. It is clear that Jephtha and Storge will never be reconciled, while Iphis and Hamor have renounced each other rather than agreeing to live in sexless love as their duet implies. The result of Jephtha's vow is that he has sacrificed his personal happiness, and his family's, for the good of his people. The situation is, after all, not so far from that of the ending of many a realistic opera, Jenufa for example. But Jephtha is not ultimately remotely realistic, and for all their power in performance the great choruses, for example, do not really belong in this production. Nevertheless, Katie Mitchell's achievement in making the characters human is substantial.
This production tours until July.