I took time out from a busy week yesterday evening for a performance by Welsh National Opera of Jephtha by George Frideric Handel. Based on a biblical story (from the Book of Judges), Jephtha was written late in Handel’s life (indeed it was the last major work Handel wrote) as an oratorio rather than an opera, and was first performed as such in 1752.

Last night’s production brought movement, scenery and costumes to Handel’s lovely music in an attempt to turn it into an opera. It was only partially successful in doing that. Owing to the nature of the piece, it appeared as a series of rather static tableaux rather than a compelling music drama. It did however, feature excellent music and singing, and very imaginative use of a rather simple set, an interior of faded and battered opulence, complete with broken plaster and bullet holes, and costumes that evoke the period leading up to World War II.

You can get a good idea of the look of the performance in the following WNO trailer:

The story revolves around the character Jephtha who is called upon to lead the people of Gilead in battle against Ammon. He takes up the challenge, and when he proves victorious he rashly (and cruelly) vows to make a sacrifice of the first human being to greet him when he returns home. That turns out to be his daughter, Iphis. Will he carry out his pledge and turn Iphis into a burnt offering? Will an Angel of the Lord intervene and spare her? I won’t spoil the plot, except that that the operatorio does not end in the same way as the bible story seems to…

As for the singers, I thought Fflur Wyn (Iphis) was the pick – her voice beautifully conveyed the innocence and fragility of the young daughter. Robin Blaze as Hamor (Iphis’ betrothed) was also excellent in the counter-tenor role. I wasn’t so keen on Robert Murray as Jephtha, whose voice was rather thin and undistinguished especially early on in the performance. But it was really Handel’s music that took centre stage. Although the performance contained much to savour, I’m not convinced that staging Jephtha as an opera was really worth it. I would probably have enjoyed it just as much if it had been performed as an oratorio, like Messiah.

6 Responses to “Jephtha”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I had no recollection that the daughter was given a name in the Book of Judges, and indeed “Iphis” was invented (according to Wikipedia) in the 16th century. The boyfriend is also a necessary invention for the opera.

    There is scholarly discussion about Jephthah’s vow in the original Hebrew, which might allow for an ambiguous ending; and the episode is merely described in Judges, with no implication that Jephthah would have been right to go through with the sacrifice without attempting to renegotiate with God.

    • telescoper Says:

      In the opera, Iphis is reprieved as long as she remains as a virgin for the rest of her life. The boyfriend didn’t seem to be too happy about this arrangement.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      That is one possibility, although it was news to me when I first came across it that ancient Judaism had nuns. Certainly the Hebrew of Jephthah’s vow might equally well read “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, OR I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (The usual translation is AND.) I would like to know what Jewish tradition says about it in the Talmud, a source of interpretation of the Old Testament that is too often neglected by modern scholars.

      • Any news about whether it was AND or OR?

        In any case, there are many passages in the Old Testament which cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be deemed humane.

  2. In another thread, I mentioned that I had recently seen/heard Jephtha and was not very impressed. By contrast, last night’s Dixit Dominus was musically much better, highly recommended. (In both cases, one has to stomach the brutal lyrics.)

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