Covent Garden’s new production of Handel’s Jephtha is currently something of a missed opportunity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Jephtha, HWV 70: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Lawrence Cummings (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 8.11.2023. (CC)

Oliver Mears’s new production of Jephtha © Marc Brenner

Director – Oliver Mears
Set designer – Simon Lima Holdsworth
Costume designer – Ilona Karas
Lighting designer – Fabiana Piccioli
Movement director – Anna Morrissey
Chorus director – William Spaulding

Jephtha – Allan Clayton
Iphis – Jennifer France
Storgè – Alice Coote
Hamor – Cameron Shahbazi
Zebul – Brindley Sherratt
Angel – Ivo Clark

It seems only moments ago – yet it is over four years! – that Handel’s late oratorio masterpiece Jephtha (1751) was heard at a BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall (see review here which includes synopsis). It was impressive as a piece then and remains so now. Battling with the physical restrictions of old age, most relevantly sight loss, Jephtha was to be Handel’s last oratorio. It is a work of glorious invention, performed (usually) within the theatre of the imagination.

That of course, was a concert performance. The static nature of oratorio poses a raft of problems for directors who wish to set it operatically. Oliver Mears’s new production is notably dark (and very inventively and expertly lit by Fabiana Piccioli). Like his Rigoletto, Mears makes reference to art in his stage work, although here less obviously and as less of a coup de théâtre – a reference to Hogarth this time, for a depiction of debauchery and orgy. The subject matter is certainly topical: Israelites battling the Ammonites, the latter depicted as Quakers/Amish with the appearance of a shaking fist implies the former strongly. William Blake’s frontispiece to his The Song of Los also inspires some notably striking celestial references.

Alice Coote (Storgè) and Jennifer France (Iphis) © Marc Brenner

The singing is variable, surprisingly. The one absolute stand-out was the Iphis of Jennifer France, beyond criticism from just about every angle. Her voice goes from strength to strength. Its purity suits Handel perfectly, and yet France can convey such a huge range of emotion. Her ‘The Smiling Dawn’ from the first act was a true highlight of the evening. Handel asks for the voice to be in (agile) unison with the orchestral violins, and France and the Covent Garden strings were in perfect accord. A pity, then, that her on-stage sweetheart, the countertenor role of Hamor, was rather weakly portrayed, both vocally and dramatically by Cameron Shahbazi, ‘On me let blind mistaken zeal’ rather a missed opportunity.

The title role was taken, as in 2019, by Allan Clayton. His acting was excellent, including the act of self-flagellation around his ostensibly fateful vow, but vocally he felt less, not more, sure than previously. The attractiveness and warmth of his voice remains, but despite being inside a staging, he felt somewhat divorced from the drama. It was really only in a fine ‘Waft her, angels, through the skies’ that the Clayton we all know and love (and to an extent expect) came to the fore. Handel’s melodic line is really somewhat angular, and Clayton found a silken legato that bound.

It is Brindley Sherratt, still firm of voice and full of charisma and stage presence, who begins the evening, as Zebul. Reciprocally, it is the Angel who (dramatically) finishes the evening, and boy treble Ivo Clark was on fine form. As Storgè, Jephtha’s wife, Alice Coote is on good form, her ‘Scenes of horror, Scenes of woe’ full of presentiment, yet also full of glorious contrast, her second act ’First perish thou, and perish all the world!’ replete with steely resolve.

Sadly, the Royal Opera Chorus were not on top form, contrapuntal textures often unclear, and ensemble occasionally compromised. It was a mixed evening, for sure. Notwithstanding the chance to hear Handel’s late masterwork, this does (currently) feel like something of a missed opportunity. I say ‘currently’ as, on each encounter, I warm towards Mears’s Rigoletto. One assumes Jephtha will be revived, and there will be a chance for reappraisal.

Colin Clarke

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