Two Tragic Heroines Receive a Great Musical Send-Off

25/10/2015

Carissimi, Purcell: Hannah Davey (soprano), Francesca Romana Saracino (mezzo-soprano), William Morgan, Julien Van Mallaerts (baritone), Cheltenham Bach Choir, The Corelli Orchestra / David Crown (conductor), Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 24.10.2015. (RJ)

Giacomo Carissimi: Jephte

Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas (concert version)

Handel was not the only composer to compose an oratorio about Jephtha, the Jewish leader who with the Lord’s help scored a stunning victory over the Ammonites. Around a century earlier Giacomo Carissimi, maestro di capella at the church of Sant’ Apollonaire at the Jesuit Collegium Gemanicum in Rome had composed a version of the story adapted from the Vulgate text of the Book of Judges. Jephtha’s victory, alas, has unintended consequences: he had promised the Lord that in return for his support he would sacrifice the first person who came out of his house on his return, and this happened to be his only daughter.

Carissimi’s oratorio is more concentrated than Handel’s, lasting little more than 30 minutes, and, sung in Latin. it is an intense and riveting experience. Francesca Romana Saracino as the narrator (Historicus) sets the scene assisted by a chorus and semi-chorus. Jephtha’s solemn oath is stated simply by William Morgan, but is quickly forgotten in the hue and cry of battle with stong, brisk singing from the choir under David Crown’s direction and Julien Van Mallaerts’ urging the godless enemy to flee and give way  (Fugite, cedite, impii).

Hannah Davey as Jephtha’s daughter leads the rejoicing at the victory urging everyone to praise the Lord, and her infectious enthusiasm permeates the choir. But Jephtha’s joy is short-lived as he explains sorrowfully the binding promise he has made and its fateful consequences for his daughter. The mood changes abruptly, as Jephtha’s daughter stoically accepts that the oath has to be honoured, but craves one wish – to be sent away to wander in the mountains and bewail her virginity. (In Hebrew tradition not to bear children was as dreadful a fate as being sacrificed as a burnt offering.) The oratorio ends with some moving arias from the grieving Hannah Davey echoed by the women’s semi-chorus. It felt a privilege to hear such a heartfelt performance.

The concert was entitled Tragic Heroines, and the second heroine to suffer a setback was Dido from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I’ve always been puzzled by the fact that the two leading protagonists do not feature more prominently in the opera: we do not see them together until Aeneas comes to take his leave of Dido, and in the early parts of the opera Belinda and the sorceresses seem to have the lion’s share of the singing. That said, Francesca Romana Saracino proved to be a very regal and love-smitten Dido, while Aeneas (who sometimes strikes me as a complete cad) sounded sincerely in love with the queen in Julien Van Mallaerts’ emotionally charged portrayal.

Of course, Dido’s lament proved to be a real show-stopper as always, but there were some excellent contributions from the rest of the company. The sorceresses, drawn from the ranks of Cheltenham Bach Choir, seemed rather polite and subdued to begin with but their malevolent character became more evident as they crowed at their success in putting an end to Dido’s love affair. The full choir sang enthusiastically about Cupid’s charms, laughed wickedly as a coven of witches, brought a lusty cheerfulness to the proceedings as they prepared to sail off at William Morgan’s bidding, and finally offered a moving tribute to the dead queen. The six-piece Corelli Orchestra with their lively playing were the icing on the cake.

The youthful looking David Crown conducted this impressive celebration of 17th century music with intelligence and flair. I was particularly impressed by Carissimi, whose works surely deserve more exposure, and at the risk of being indicted for heresy, have to admit I found Jephtha’s daughter’s final arias every bit a powerful as Dido’s famous Lament.

Roger Jones

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