In the final instalment of their Baroque Festival Tour, English Touring Opera present the most famous of early English operas with a relatively obscure choral work by Giacomo Carissimi.
Most of the cast of last weeks Orfeo return with the addition of a counter-tenor.
Again, there is fine ensemble singing, as well as some impressive individual performances.
The old testament fable Jephte tells of the plight of the King of Israel who makes a pact with God that, in return for victory over his enemies, he will make a burnt offering of the first person to greet him on his return home. This happens to be his own daughter, making for an implicitly dramatic situation.
Last year, English National Opera gave Handels Jephta as another of their staged oratorios. Now the much smaller ETO present the same story in a version by the earlier composer Carissimi, who died in 1674, a decade or so before Handels birth. Just as the Italians oratorio is a diminutive version of Handels, both in length and quality, so ETOs production is inevitably on a much more modest scale than the ENOs. Its none the worse for that.
The staging is very simple and effective, with taut direction by Bernadette Iglich. Rather than impose concepts on the work, she concentrates on the groupings of the performers and the pictures she paints expressively and powerfully convey the key elements of the non-narrative text.
Jane Harrington sings the daughters lament beautifully and the whole ensemble is very focused and committed, rendering this a delightful 25 minute curtain-raiser.
The same forces are not quite as effective in the more demanding material of Purcells Dido and Aeneas. Directed this time by Helen Eastman, they dont quite rise to the challenges of the strange mix of styles that make up what is supposedly the first English opera.
Didos court as a middle-class picnic is not quite dramatically satisfying, although admittedly Purcells version of Virgils classic is far more English than Italian. The witches are not as grotesque as the music suggests and the rollicking sailors shanty is a little too refined and characterless.
Eastman says in the programme notes that shes aiming for a celebration of dance, theatre and music. Unfortunately, the dance element lets this intention down, with a lack of exuberance in the lacklustre dance sequences. For a true celebration, Id like to have seen something in the spirit, if not the steps, of the dances that characterised the ending of plays at Shakespeares Globe during Mark Rylances reign.
The best is left until last, however, with the final chorus following Didos lament and death sensitively sung by the ensemble and ending the evening on a quite moving note.
Joana Thom is Dido with David Stout as Dido/Jephte. The ensemble for both works is Susan Atherton, Sean Clayton, Laura Mitchell, Iestyn Morris, Patricia Orr and Martin Robson. Jane Harrington returns as Belinda in Dido.
Matthew Halls conducts a polished performance by the ETO Baroque Orchestra.
ETOs Baroque Festival will now tour the UK through to December, playing venues as far afield as Exeter, Ulverston and Canterbury. The other operas in the season are Monteverdis Orfeo, Cavallis Erismena and Handels Tolemeo.