Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Jephtha review – the Royal Opera’s staging of Handel’s oratorio makes for a gloomy evening

8 November 2023


Metaphors abound in Oliver Mears’ production: some lumberingly intentional, others unfortunately and accidentally apposite. 

Jephtha

Allan Clayton, Brindley Sherratt, Cameron Shahbazi & chorus (Photo: Marc Brenner)

‘Gloomy’. That’s the word. The story of Jephtha in the Book of Judges isn’t a barrel of laughs. Pushed into leading the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites, Jephtha makes a bargain: Yahweh will grant him victory in return for Jephtha sacrificing the first living thing he sees come out of his house on his return. It’s a well established trope, and, of course, it’s Jephtha’s daughter for the chop (or, rather, the bonfire). In Handel’s setting of Thomas Morrell’s libretto, there’s a degree of happy ending: an angel stops the sacrifice, but the daughter, Iphis, has to remain a virgin and become a kind of Israelite nun.

Director Oliver Mears’ staging of the oratorio only intensifies the gloom. The pious Israelites are portrayed (courtesy of costume designer Ilona Karas) as 17th century Puritans, dressed in monochrome – the women with modesty-enforcing coifs, the men wearing black hats that might be either Hassidic hoiches or witch burners’ capotains. The set (Simon Lima Holdsworth) consists of massive monolithic grey stone tablets engraved with stern biblical verse, that move with ponderous menace to form walls, cells, and a kind of chilly chapel for the ‘Puritans’ to pray in. Lighting (Fabiana Piccoli) is stark and white, the huge, crisp, black shadows it casts used to point up the drama. Mears gives us the odd rare moment of colour, in his familiar ‘painterly’ tableaux – in this case, the Ammonites as lavishly attired 18th century courtiers, enjoying a decadent banquet (a George-y orgy?). There are also occasional moments of (unintended) humour: Jephtha’s wife, Storgè, foresees trouble in a nightmare, depicted by the noxious fumes of her dream literally pouring from her bed (yes, we’ve all had nights like that after a few too many drinks and an ill-advised kebab); Iphis’ boyfriend, Hamor, after his experience of battle, sobs and squeals, much in the manner of a histrionic diva bewailing a broken nail. All in all, though, the evening leaves you wondering – with all this plain scenery and plain dress  – how, visually, it improves on a concert performance.

“The story of Jephtha in the Book of Judges isn’t a barrel of laughs”

Jephtha

The Ammonites at play (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Over the final numbers, Mears presents a revised ending to the story, in which the populist leader Jephtha is turned on by his own supporters and ends his days in disgrace. The bolted-on quality of this lumpen topical metaphor was enough, anyway, to make you squirm, but it was overshadowed by the presumably (given the development period of these productions) unintended elephant in the room: that another conflict between Israel and its neighbours is currently raging, in which the deaths of everyone’s children seem to be held in low regard.

Musically, the production was a curate’s egg. Under Laurence Cummings, an experienced interpreter of Baroque music, the Covent Garden band of (mostly) modern instruments delivered some crisp, mannered and ‘authentic’ sounding accounts. In general, the soloists were good: Allan Clayton – who turns his adaptable and exciting voice to almost anything and performs it with élan – gave a brilliant and moving Jephtha that included precision on the exultant runs of ‘Virtue my soul shall still embrace’, power for ‘His mighty arm’, palpable distress in ‘Open thy marble jaws, O tomb’ and the gentlest, most poignant tones for ‘Waft her, angels’. Alice Coote’s portrayal of Storgè was magnificent, and her sudden expressions of anger and distress through use of her chest voice in, for example, ‘Let other creatures die’ were highly effective. Jennifer France’s Iphis was given with clarity and purity, although the part (biddable daughter and girlfriend; willing sacrifice) doesn’t allow much beyond beige emotion. Brindley Sherratt is always a joy to listen to, but his casting as Zebul, in a role that was often above his usually dark range, meant for the occasional stretched note (‘Pour forth no more unheeded pray’rs’). The countertenor Cameron Shahbazi, in his second appearance at Covent Garden, took the role of Hamor, and although his acting was good, and his material flawlessly sung, for my taste his voice is a little too rich and blowsy. Certainly, the best part of the evening was the sequence of airs, recitatives and ensemble pieces in the middle of Act II, where each of the soloists shone, and the contrasts in voices were nicely highlighted.

Which brings us to the Royal Opera Chorus, and, sad to say, this is where the major disappointment lay. While the debate around ‘authenticity’ still rumbles on, no one sings Handel these days without some understanding of period style, but this is exactly what happened. Not a trace of ‘historically informed’ was detectable in the singing, and the chorus numbers were bedevilled with flabby voice production, vibrato that was piled on (such that some of the more chromatic lines of Handel’s fugues were risibly inaccurate), fumbled and querulous entries, a seeming disregard for the architecture of counterpoint, and a general feeling of lack of focus. Amateur choral groups deliver Handel better than this, and had this been a concert performance without all the visual distraction, these accounts would have received scant applause.

• Performances run on Covent Garden’s main stage until 24 November, and it will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Saturday 27 January 2024.

• This review was amended on 13 November 2023 to replace an earlier version.


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