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Killing people is wrong

Queen Elizabeth Hall
03/27/2002 -  
George Frideric Handel: Jephtha

Rosemary Joshua (Iphis), Patricia Bardon (Storgè), Michael Chance (Hamor), Richard Croft (Jephtha), D'Arcy Bleiker (Zebul)

René Jacobs (conductor)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

The Book of Judges is the source of some of the material use in Christian leadership courses. The churches may be more realistic than their corporate equivalents: everyone who is selected for the top job in Israel meets some kind of disaster, except for Joshua. In most cases, the disaster is a kind of folk-tale warning not to get to confident after successfully smiting your enemies. As in Handel's Deborah, for example, Barak beats the Philistines resoundingly but loses the glory because girly Jael nails Sisera's head to the floor. Samson deals with the wreckage after the leader's fall, but Handel's Jephtha uniquely depicts both the external and inner fragility of leadership and confidence, of virtue even.

Having successfully made a deal with the Israelites to become their general, Jephtha tries to make a similar pact with God and finds himself bound to kill his daughter as the price of victory. The narrative shape, the reflective text with its emphasis on the bonds of necessity, and some of the music, foreshadow the grim philosophical profundity of Gluck's Iphigenia operas. Indeed a version of Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis has been morphed with the scriptural story, not only in the name of Jephtha's daughter and the Clytemnestra-like character of his wife, but also in the inclusion of an angry betrothed for the daughter and the miraculous and distinctly unbiblical rescue to dedicated virginity. Jephtha's daughter Iphis definitely has more than a hint of Handel's Theodora, lifting herself from despair with altered-state visions of (equally unbiblical) heavenly bliss. But the real interest of a comparison with Theodora is the elevation of the tenor role from the conflicted but plot-marginal Septimius to the title character Jephtha. We see Jephtha's point of view throughout, and he is focal to the action in the way few of Handel's scriptural oratorio characters ( Saul is the obvious exception) are.

René Jacobs directed the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a performance that was lucid and often glorious but a bit short on tension. This perhaps affected the singers, all of whom were excellent for their roles but who seemed to focus as much on singing itself as on the drama. This was in particular true of Richard Croft as Jephtha: his performance was technically impeccable and vocally beautiful, with superb showing off in "Virtue my soul shall still embrace" and awed pianissimos in all the right places in the oath and the scena. But, the odd hammy gesture aside, it was all a bit too considered, one contrast after another rather than an accumulation of humanity. Michael Chance had less opportunity to do anything with the thankless role of Hamor, a sort of bargain-basement Achilles, but sang it impressively. Rosemary Joshua as Iphis achieved some intensity in her two arias accepting death ("Happy they" and "Farewell, ye limpid springs"), but was also a bit singerly in other places. Patricia Bardon, as heavy as a mezzo can get as Storge, sounded lovely but wasn't nearly frightening enough. Storge's loving wrath should be an incommensurable match for Jephtha's chilly obedience. D'Arcy Bleiker, a very young and already distinguished bass baritone from Yorkshire, communicated more than the rest of the cast combined. The uncredited Angel from the excellent Choir of Clare College was lovely, though her soprano backing group was a bit naff.

H.E. Elsom



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