JephthaGeorge Friedrich Handel - Jephtha

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Harry Christophers, Frederic Wake-Walker, James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Gillian Keith, Jonathan Best, William Purefoy, Elizabeth Karani | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012

Staging a Handel oratorio is an attractive proposition, since they often contain some of his most beautiful and stirring compositions in a much freer and more varied form outside of the restrictions and conventions of the Italian opera seria, but they inevitably present certain challenges when it comes to dramatising them for the stage. Works such as Theodora and Belshazzar are indeed semi-dramatic, their religious subject sometimes the only reason preventing them being staged as operas due to English censorship restrictions of the time on the staging of biblical subjects, and they have been successfully adapted as staged opera works, as even has Messiah. Categorised as a “dramatic oratorio in three acts”, Jephtha however doesn’t actually have all that much happening in the way of action, but the qualities of the music in Handel’s final oratorio, finished while partially blind and losing his sight completely soon after, mean that it’s certainly worth trying to find a way to present it to a modern audience.

The libretto by Dr Thomas Morell presents the biblical story of Jephtha from the Book of Judges in the oratorio style of repeated declamations and pronouncements, the devout sentiments expressed in a poetic fashion with only small sections of recitative to link them together. Not a lot actually happens in the relatively straightforward story, where Zabul asks his brother Jephtha to lead the Israelites into battle against the Ammonites. If successful, Jephtha will continue to rule and he vows that if God helps him, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return. It’s his daughter Iphis however who he encounters, come to meet her father. Jephtha agonises over what has happened, but intends to carry out his promise, only to be prevented at the last moment by the intervention of an angel. The biblical story is filled out (and given a happy ending) by Morell by way of Euripides, with some scenes featuring Iphis’s beloved Hamor, and Jephtha’s wife Storge lamenting the premonitions she has had of what is to befall her family.

Like opera seria work from this period, it’s difficult to stage such scenes naturalistically, and particular so in a work that was created as an oratorio, where not only is there much expression of interiorised emotions, but those expressions are particularly ‘elevated’, by which I mean relating to religious convictions and conceptual ideas more so than simply reacting to circumstances. A conventional stage setting won’t work, and might even work against such a particular means of expression, so director Frederick Wake-Walker’s approach is appropriately conceptual. Initially, the staging seems to take a leaf from the book of Christof Loy, the stage bare but for five chairs, the singers dressed formally, taking their places as if for a rehearsal of a performance, walking forward to sing from the stand placed at the front of the stage, with some brief interaction between them. The idea of it being a performance remains throughout, coming through again at the presentation of flowers at the end, but there are other elements at play here that are more difficult to pin down.

It’s left to the chorus - an important element in Handel oratorios, and the principal attraction for staging such works - to take on the task of enhancing the meaning or deeper expression in this Buxton Festival production of Jephtha. Dressed in black robes, with ruffs around their neck, quite what their movements and placements on the stage mean can’t really be defined, but in many respects, they are the embodiment of the scenery, the sentiments and the whole mood of the piece. I know that sounds like grasping for meaning, but meaning is there for the individual to find in the work and its presentation, and if you are attempting to express dark thoughts and “scenes of horror”, then this approach is much more appropriate than setting it in a countryside location or some such naturalistic location. The measure of whether this approach works or not is in whether the full force of the work comes across without the need for literalism (which would be difficult to find in this work in any case), and there was no question that it served Handel and Morell’s work exceptionally well.

Just as vital, if not evidently more so, is the musical accompaniment and the singing, and in that respect, the staging supported what was being expressed here and didn’t detract from it. The playing from the Orchestra of the Sixteen in the pit conducted by Harry Christophers was marvellous, finding the drama in the music itself and working in accord with the singers. The role of Jephtha has the widest variety of emotions, from angry declamation and fervent passion though to complete dejection and soft humility, and James Gilchrist matched the tone and delivery for each sentiment perfectly. This is a wonderful work however for the variety of voices and in how they work together side-by-side in individual sections, but also in unison in duets and trios. Susan Bickley’s Storge, Gillian Keith’s Iphis and countertenor William Purefoy’s Hamor were all outstanding in this respect, each fully characterising their roles through the voice even more so than through the expression of somewhat obscure pronouncements. Jonathan Best and Elizabeth Karani in the smaller roles of Zebul and Angel fitted wonderfully into this arrangement, an arrangement of voices and expression that is amplified by Handel’s choral writing, delivered passionately by the Festival Chorus.