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.Follow @telescoper