Jephtha - compelling psychological dramaIf Handel's music is one of the few places where inner and outer world meet, David Hoose's triumphant production of Jephtha transcended the difference between worlds, melding them into one.
Jephtha is Handel's most startling dramatic work. Its story has great psychological power; its music is more gripping than any Hitchcock movie. The oratorio's musical power does not derive from physical brute force: the overwhelming sensualism of the romantic composers is entirely absent. The music's drive comes, instead, from Handel's arrangement of arias, subtle instrumentation and evocative colors. Simple melodies are given penetrating power; in Jephtha Handel can take us without contradiction to simultaneous heights of horror and rapture with a restrained harpsicord continuo or gentle flute.
Jephtha tells the tale of the warrior who promises to sacrifice the first person he sees if he returns from war victorious; he sees first his daughter. Judges XI is quite explicit about what happens next: His daughter was given two months "to go up and down the mountains and bewail my virginity" before "she returned unto her father who did with her according to the vow which he had vowed."
Rev. Thomas Morell -- a scholar and amateur musician -- wrote the libretto for Handel, and in so doing softened the ending: An angel comes and lets Jephtha and his daughter off the hook. Handel's most profound music is reserved for the parts of the libretto which remain true to the original biblical text. The work therefore peaks dramatically in the middle, its disturbing picture of a father faced with bringing on the death of his daughter almost too haunting -- yet also almost too sublimely beautiful -- to be borne.
David Hoose's orchestra had a Handelian clarity, but also an enveloping warmth. Performing legato, its psychic seduction was irresistible; hurling agitated semiquavers as in the quartet where mother, lover and uncle implore Jephtha to spare his daughter, the world outside the theatre was forced out of temporary existence by an audience rooted to their seats by a musical intensity that left no room in the mind for anything else.
Of all the singers, Gloria Raymond was most outstanding. Her portrayal of the mother, Storg`e, had fathomless depth. Complex ornamentation flowed easily and enigmatically, blending harmoniously with the supporting orchestral line.
In her first aria, "In gentle murmus will I mourn," there is a pause before Raymond's da capo repeat in which a flute briefly enters: Christopher Krueger's flute entered with disarming underststatement to stop time. Breaking the endless silent moment that followed, Raymond returned with even greater pathos. Her strengths prevailed the evening through.
Iphis -- the unfortunate daughter -- was performed by a sweet-voiced Janet Brown. Emphasizing purity and clarity, her singing was utterly compelling. The innocence of "Tune the soft melodious lute" was complete; the chirpy welcome-home extended to Jephtha poignant, the resigned "Farewell, ye limpid springs and floods" piercing.
Jeffrey Gall -- in the role of Hamor, Iphis' lover -- made a perfect complement to Brown. Their duet -- "These labors past, how happy we," -- saw their voices blended to perfection.
Lisa Wolff's rendition of the angel's aria was a delight.
John Osborn's performance of Zebul, Jephtha's brother was only adequate, however, while Frank Hoffmeister's portrayal of Jephtha disappointing. Hoffmeister's voice was flat and lacking in emotional power. His singing showed strain several times: He was clearly not up to the part.
The chorus provides the cement that binds the oratorio together, and the Cantata Singers provided the finest choral singing Boston has heard this year. Their balance was wonderful, control exacting: there wasn't a single inch of slack the evening through. Their light shone bright, guiding the us through torment and to final, blissful, redemption.
Walking out into the cool Cambridge night, mind and spirit cleansed, the air felt fresher, the world seemed sweeter.
[it1p]Note: For those who missed this remarkable performance, a splendid recording of Jephtha is available on Argo K181K 43. Neville Marriner conducts the Academy and Chorus of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.