Review: Jephtha

DOMINIC EDWARDS says stay for the second half but don’t open your eyes unless there’s a set change

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‘I thought the lighting was excellent’ would be the clichéd approach to tackling (or perhaps avoiding) a difficult summary of the triumphs and failures of tonight’s performance of Handel’s oratorio.

But the lighting really was excellent, drawing soloists, scenery and chorus deftly in and out of focus at the appropriate moments, and highlighting some truly moving moments.

These marvellous lights lit a marvellous set. Although Handel admittedly wrote Jephtha, his last oratorio, almost a century after Wren designed new plans for London (from which the set design took its cues), the connection was still a strong one. To locate perhaps the most personal (even autobiographical?) of all Handel’s oratorios within his own city as opposed to Jephtha’s in Israel and to have this also make sense for the key themes of reconstruction and triumphant blindness in the face of disaster was extremely rewarding, intellectually and dramatically.

Credit must go here to Jack Hawkins, the director, as well as Philipp Heckman-Umhau, the designer.

Image credit: Robert Hawkins

The set was all-achieving, however, and fulfilled the director’s intellectual bumf in the programme notes where the staging occasionally fell short. Clarity was the intention, and clarity we got, but the story could hardly have been simpler if Morell had tried. Many of the soloists were left on stage with not much to do and little inspiration; the awkwardness of many of the scenes particularly involving Iphis and Hamor, the two lovers who never quite kissed but liked to touch each other on the face and shoulders a lot, became problematic as it dragged on.

The chorus, though generally handled far better with some striking stylised dancing and some character moments, was still tidied away to the back of the stage with nothing to do for most of the second half. When they joined the audience from the galleries with the stage in darkness to chant the rather dubious moral of “whatever is, is right” it became clear that the best way to experience the performance was to simply avoid becoming too involved in the acting on stage (except to notice the wonderful wooden models, stretchers, coffins and banners of the set and of course that marvellous lighting) and simply enjoy this absolutely outstanding and underappreciated piece by Handel, which was on the whole beautifully sung. Perhaps whilst doing this you could contemplate how you actually pronounce ‘Jephtha’.

Image credit: Robert Hawkins

Holding this position for too long may be dangerous, however, for Edward Reeve, the musical director who conducted his stellar orchestra almost as fabulously as his continuo playing, also opted to play every da capo in the book and cut absolutely nothing. This made the performance last the best part of three hours, cradle to grave.

Another argument for this approach were the stand out vocal performances that required serious appreciation especially given a difficult acoustic. Tom Lilburn as Hamor was excellent, and Helena Moore (Iphis) and Xavier Hetherington (Jephtha) were even excellent-er. All their duet singing was top-class. They only got better, along with everything else, in the second half, which includes the most moving areas. Indeed, the evening became one of waiting to hear Xavier or Helena sing a new aria (or was that a repeat?). Peter Lidbetter (Zebul) and Alice Halstead (Angel) also sang well.

Jephtha is three hours full of glorious music, some striking staging, and some truly stellar singing. Ultimately, though, perhaps this performance would have been drastically improved if, as Mr Reeve liked to remind us in the lead up, it hadn’t ‘followed in the footsteps of Glyndebourne and Welsh National Opera’ of fully staging the work and had instead stuck to the oratorio format. But don’t get rid of the lighting and that lovely scenery!