Royal Opera House – Handel’s Jephtha – Allan Clayton, Jennifer France & Alice Coote; directed by Oliver Mears; conducted by Laurence Cummings

Jephtha – Oratorio in three Acts to a libretto by Thomas Morell [sung in English with English surtitles]

Jephtha – Allan Clayton
Iphis – Jennifer France
Storgè – Alice Coote
Hamor – Cameron Shahbazi
Zebul – Brindley Sherratt
Angel – Ivo Clark

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Laurence Cummings

Oliver Mears – Director
Simon Lima Holdsworth – Designer
Ilona Karas – Costume designer
Fabiana Piccioli – Lighting designer
Anna Morrissey – Movement director
Sander Loonen – Video projections

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 November, 2023
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

A staging of Handel’s last original oratorio Jephtha (1752), whose narrative is set against an epic backdrop of the ancient Israelites fighting their way to victory, could have stirred sensitivities in the context of the present war in Gaza. But Oliver Mears’s new production puts aside any specific religious and national confrontations, making it a drama about Jephtha’s internal struggle as he grapples with the age-old dilemma between self-indulgent excess and moral purity.

The Israelites – over whom Jephtha is appointed leader or Judge (to use the term of the episode in the Old Testament) – are recast as Puritans, fending off the Ammonites, who are reinterpreted here as louche and sordid society in a tableau vivant recreation of Hogarth’s ‘The Rake at the Rose Tavern’ from A Rake’s Progress. It is within that outward and inward practice of religious enthusiasm, even fanaticism, that Jephtha makes his bold vow to God that, in the event of military success against the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first living thing he encounters (which turns out to be his daughter, Iphis). The ‘Israelites’/Puritans create a bonfire of vanities, destroying the paraphernalia of the Ammonites’ pleasure-seeking, including the burning of a reproduction of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Mears surely making a witty reference to his own staging of Rigoletto, also revived at Covent Garden this season, which makes prominent use of the same image). 

Although the Puritans’ heyday had been several generations before Handel’s (and Hogarth’s) lifetime, there is a certain logic in deploying the Israelites as such since that ‘hotter sort of Protestant’ tended to see themselves as the new Israel or community of righteous believers, set apart from the mass of gentile, unenlightened Christians of other denominations by whom they were surrounded. And in any case, a general moral puritanism (overt or latent) is a universal facet of individual human psychology as well as collective human society in all times and places – the rise of Methodism and a culture of middle class virtue and probity in the mid-18th century for example (to which Handel’s own turn from aristocratic, ‘exotic’ Italian opera to upright English oratorio itself responded) was a milder version of the Puritan revolution in the previous century. 

Enlightenment in a deeper philosophical sense – particularly that of the intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries – is a theme which permeates Thomas Morell’s libretto, as it frequently contrasts the images of light and darkness (which must also have pressed home to Handel who started going blind during the composition of this work). That idea fruitfully inspires Simon Lima Holdsworth’s design (rather better than the facile interview in the programme would suggest: ‘religion repeatedly uses concepts of light and dark as a metaphor. Similarly, the ‘Enlightenment’ is itself a reference to the emergence of intellectual thought from a period of darkness. Many people […] also experienced more light literally, due to advancements in oil lamp technology’). A pair of stark walls with incised Scriptural texts, standing as the irrevocable word of God or dogma of religious certainty, are continually reconfigured to allow characters to come and go in varying degrees of illumination or shadow, vividly sustaining the drama’s visual poetry.

But the production itself resorts to a rather gimmicky and caricatured notion of what religious faith is about. There is an intimation of that before the Overture even begins, when Jephtha is seen in sackcloth, writing in despair and torment, and hemmed in between those two walls, while maddening voice projections fill the auditorium with quotations from the Bible. It rather undermines the subsequent drama to pre-empt the narrative about Jephtha’s spiritual downfall from certainty to doubt (or at least a deeper, more qualified understanding of reality) which is effectively the downfall of a hero in Greek tragedy. Handel (the highly experienced musical dramatist) and Morell were as much concerned with the intellectual dialogue and tension between that cultural heritage of Classical (pagan) antiquity (much admired in their time) and the Judaeo-Christian religion upon which society was still substantially founded – in other words, between different understandings of the working out in the world of impersonal fate or divine providence respectively. The similar story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia by Agamemnon, and Idamante by Idomeneus would preoccupy other dramatists and composers. Depicting Hamor (Iphis’s lover) as a nervous, hysterical wreck at the beginning of Act Two, before Jephtha has even fatefully encountered Iphis after his victory, also dissipates the tension to come. 

Dramatic logic might still have been salvaged, but the ending is especially confused. As the Puritan community believe they must sacrifice Iphis in accordance with Jephtha’s reported oath, they bring the benches of their prayer hall to create a pyre upon which she is to be burnt. Whereas in the original she would be put to the sword by sacrificing priests, it’s not clear what the symbol of the purifying flames is supposed to mean here, nor why her peers should so keenly take upon themselves her execution – Iphis is no witch or outcast. After the Angel intervenes to point out that Jephtha’s vow was actually to sacrifice or dedicate to holy service the first living being he saw, such that Iphis may live after all, it is understandable within that chosen sequence of actions that they should have blood on their hands as a metaphor for their guilt. But it isn’t clear then why they should hiss at and ostracise Jephtha when he praises God on this fortunate turn of events. Given Mears’s fair point in general in critiquing religious dogmatism and fanaticism, it is a good ironic trick to interpret Iphis’s (enforced) dedication to perpetual virginity as becoming a nun instead (even if that doesn’t make literal sense in a Puritan setting). Rather than being a (supposedly) happy ending, this is turned into a tragedy almost as bad as if she had died, as Jephtha, Hamor, and her mother Storgè all despair over this outcome here too. 

But a last problem arises – as Iphis sheds her nun’s habit, and triumphantly escapes with Hamor, why do her parents remain so utterly defeated, returning at the conclusion to the same image of the despairing Jephtha as at the beginning? The Angel has torn up the sheet upon which the oath is recorded and a cascade of other pieces of paper fall from the auditorium’s dome over the audience, so it seems to be annulled and Jephtha should have cause for no further grief. It’s a perplexing outcome.

However all that may be, Allan Clayton gives a magnificent account of the troubled title character, always in command of the music with lustrous vocal production, but introducing an eloquent layer of defensive confidence or courage when need be, or angst and vulnerability elsewhere. The sublime simplicity of ‘Waft her, angels’ is a whole drama in itself, but contributes to his overall consistently transfixing characterisation. Jennifer France opens out as the performance proceeds, reticent at first but developing more fire and charisma with her finely honed vocalism as his daughter.

Alice Coote tends to drawl as Storge, particularly in the upper register, when such notes could be emphasised to express more fierceness or terror. In her two Airs of such fury, there could be rather more passion and vehemence, of the nature of Dejanira’s mad scene in Hercules (which she performed so compellingly in concert in 2015). Cameron Shahbazi’s stylish countertenor as Hamor is an apt foil for Iphis, until he expresses his agitated disappointment at her becoming a nun with a forceful edge. Brindley Sherratt stirs the Puritan crowd with a loose, expansive bass tone, while treble Ivo Clark is a winsome Angel.

Laurence Cummings directs the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a largely routine, dutiful interpretation. A prevailing subdued colour prevails, which isn’t inappropriate – or wouldn’t be in a smaller scale, concert performance. But precisely in a staged presentation in such a large place, there could be more vigour and drama, which Cummings is generally so good at in his renditions of Handel. It’s good to hear a fairly numerous ensemble for the choruses, but Baroque polyphony isn’t quite the ROH Chorus’s forte (who rarely sing anything earlier than the end of the 18th century). The contrapuntal lines aren’t especially crisp but become lost in a somewhat wild delivery at times; it’s only in the more sturdy, homophonic passages that they are more emphatic and dramatically effective.

The production certainly has some interesting ideas, and its theatricality often engages as entertainment. But Handel’s very great oratorio digs deeper as a drama at both human and philosophical levels. If it is about religious faith per se, it is not really about blind faith in any arbitrarily chosen dogma, but is a much subtler examination about the world perceived as governed either by an uncontrollable, implacable fate or by a providential, possibly beneficent force that leaves room for the exercise of freedom, and how faith may operate between those.

Further performances to 24 November 

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