United Kingdom Handel, Jephtha: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Paul Goodwin (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 22.9.2012 (GPu)
Jephtha: Robert Murray
Iphis: Fflur Wyn
Hamor: Robin Blaze
Storgè: Diana Montague
Zebul: Alan Ewing
Angel: Claire Ormshaw
Original Director: Katie Mitchell
Revival Director: Robin Tebbutt
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris
“The Danger not the Death”. When Giovanni Battista Guarini set about defending the ‘new’ genre of tragi-comedy at the end of the sixteenth century, he explained that it was a form that took from tragedy “il pericolo, non la morte”. Shakespeare’s younger collaborator, John Fletcher, explained, in clarification of his own work, that a tragicomedy “wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy”.
Both formulations are thoroughly applicable to Handel’s Jephtha with its brilliant libretto by Thomas Morrell. Music and text alike evoke such tragic emotions as pity in a remarkably powerful fashion, while eluding a ‘simply’ tragic ending. Heard as the glorious oratorio it is Handel’s last completed work Jephtha traces a path from despair to triumph then from triumph to despair and finally – or so the music declares – to joy. Acts Two and Three articulate the spiritual trajectory that Thomas Connolly has described and discussed as “mourning into joy” (in his Mourning into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia of 1994). At the close, Morrell’s libretto speaks of “this happy turn” and the word “joy” rings out repeatedly in the closing numbers. Storgè addresses her daughter, newly saved from immolation (though she isn’t in the original Old Testament narrative) thus:
Sweet as sight to the blind,
Or freedom to the slave,
Such joy in thee I find,
Safe from the grave.
(Hearing that first line, it is hard not to think of the battle with blindness that Handel had to fight in order to complete this oratorio). The closing Chorus of Israelites sums things up and draws the moral:
Ye house of Gilead, with one voice,
In blessings manifold rejoice.
Freed from war’s destructive sword,
Peace her plenty round shall spread,
While in virtue’s path you tread;
So are they blest who fear the Lord.
Katie Mitchell’s operatic staging of this extraordinary oratorio was first produced in 2003, was first revived in 2006 (see review) and now reappears once more. Staging a text and music not written for the operatic stage has its dangers, but this production avoids most of those and finds ways of using the resources of the theatre as a means both of presenting (and commenting on) the ‘meaning’ of the work. Only occasionally, as when Iphis’s aria of consolation to her mother after her disturbing dream (“The smiling dawn of happy days”) was sung in the face of a rather distracting flurry of stage business did the balance go wrong.
The differing nature of the medium for which Handel and Morrell were writing and that in which their work was now being performed inevitably throws up a few difficulties; so one wondered (in a moment of unsympathetic pedantry) why the people to whom Jephtha recounts his victory at his return from war at the beginning of Act Two don’t count as the first thing “to salute his eyes” (if they had been on the battlefield with him, after all, they wouldn’t need to be told). But such issues are minor. For the most part the staging illuminates, clarifies and enhances. Inter-character tensions become clearer and more forceful; physical action reinforces (only occasionally to excess) what music and text are telling us. And, very interestingly, there are powerful moments when the language of theatre can question (rather than wholly subvert) and provoke us to question, what text and music are saying.
The ‘joy’ of Jephtha’s ending depends upon our being happy to accept Morrell’s solution to the problem of Jephtha’s vow as essentially satisfactory. The text affirms that Iphis’s (unchosen) future dedication “to God, in pure and virgin state fore’er” is evidence of divine benevolence. When we only hear the duet in which Iphis and Hamor each declare that they “freely … to heaven resign” their love of one another, Handel’s glorious music persuades us that this is unqualifiedly for the best (“Whatever is, is right”). But when we hear that music and see the Iphis of Fflur Wyn and the Hamor of Robin Blaze clinging to one another, reaching out hands to one another as they are parted, one questions the ‘justice’ which makes a desolate figure of the innocently well-intentioned Hamor and which condemns the radiantly loving and faithful Iphis to that fate with which Theseus threatens Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “For aye to be in shady cloister mewed, / To live a barren sister all your life, / Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon”. We might indeed find ourselves agreeing, not with what Morrell’s text tells us but with what Theseus goes on to say to Hermia:
Thrice blessed they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.
This is a thought-provoking production, with its various themes of patriotism – and of the exploitation of patriotism for personal advancement; of the dynamic of family relationships, between husband and wife, parents and children; of the sacrifice of family for political and military success; of how a ‘religious’ vow can become a kind of quasi-Faustian pact and much else. But it is also powerfully moving. A friend said to me afterwards “Puccini never makes me cry; that did”. I can wholeheartedly agree with her. Acts Two (especially) and Three contain some of the most deeply affecting of Handel’s music (and the emotional and spiritual depths of the music surely draw on Handel’s own emotional and spiritual condition as well as on his response to the story).
Singing and playing were at their finest in Act Two. Throughout the Chorus were quite marvellous, powerful and subtle by turns, adaptable and vocally sure, even if the production didn’t always find intelligent or relevant things for them to be doing on stage. Fflur Wyn’s Iphis was (as it was when I saw the 2006 performance) quite outstanding; Iphis was characterised with remarkable plausibility and coherence, vulnerable yet with great inner strength, almost childishly naïve and playful at first, deepening visibly and audibly in the transition from Innocence to Experience. The beauty of Wyn’s performances of “Tune the soft melodious lute” in Act Two and “Farewll, ye limpid springs and floods” in Act Three will long stay in the memory.
As her lover Hamor, Robin Blaze brought freshness and immediacy to much of his work without ever quite being able to provoke the same intensity of emotion in the hearer. Wyn and Blaze worked well together in their duets. Diana Montague was a powerful presence, visually and musically, as Storgè, utterly believable in emotional terms, exact and intelligently varied in her singing (not least in “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe”. Robert Murray’s Jephtha, on this first night at least, lacked a little of the variety of vocal tone that the role invites; his was a sure-footed performance in which one sensed just a little cautiousness, a little playing safe. His “Waft her, angels, through the skies” suggested, however, that there is more to come from his interpretation of the role. Alan Ewing’s Zebul is not, perhaps, very well served by the production, which gives him so much stage business to transact that the singing becomes almost secondary. Claire Ormshaw’s angel is a beguiling (and to the characters an invisible) stage presence, long before her ‘appearance’ in Act III. The way Mitchell uses her is one of the most interesting aspects of the production. Unfortunately, the often admirable Ormshaw couldn’t quite find a fitting radiance of voice in “Happy, Iphis shalt thou live”.
For the most part the orchestral work, under the baton of Handel specialist Paul Goodwin, was sound and expressive, though there were moments (especially in Act III) where orchestra and singers struggled for togetherness. But these were minor blemishes in a rewarding performance of an interesting production which well merits its revival.