sun 14/07/2024

Jephtha, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Jephtha, Welsh National Opera

Jephtha, Welsh National Opera

Handel oratorio staged, finely sung, but with too much palaver

Jephtha, family and assorted Israelites: not quite the BibleBill Cooper

Reviewing the Buxton Festival production of Handel’s Jephtha on theartsdesk a couple of months ago, Philip Radcliffe complained that the director, Frederic Wake-Walker, had done too little to justify the staging of this, the composer’s last oratorio: had made it, that is, too static and unstagey.

I wonder what Radcliffe would say about Katie Mitchell’s production for Welsh National Opera, revived this weekend by Robin Tebbutt, and a classic case of a director’s reluctance to allow an essentially statuesque, slow-moving work its natural space and pace.

Unlike Wake-Walker, who virtually dispensed with costumes and scenery and avoided locating the work in time, Mitchell over-specifies in all these departments. We are in the 1940s, presumably (though this is not entirely clear) at the founding of the state of Israel. Jephtha, you may recall from the Old Testament Book of Judges, is the illegitimate son of a prostitute but a brilliant soldier who is called back by the Israelites to lead them into war against the neighbouring Ammonites. Doubting the strength of his army, he prays for victory, promising God that he will sacrifice the first creature he meets on his return. Alas this turns out to be his own daughter, Iphis; in the bible she is duly sacrificed, in the oratorio, characteristically, a deus ex machina appears in the form of an angel, who lets Jephtha off his vow but decrees instead that Iphis must remain a virgin dedicated to God.

Verism, to put it bluntly, is completely out of place

The resonances of this tale from an Israeli point of view are interesting. Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, also thwarted by an angel, leads to the symbolic founding of the Jewish nation. Jephtha’s sacrifice has the opposite result, perhaps because, being illegitimate, he can’t be allowed to start a dynasty. Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence that Handel was concerned with such issues. What interested him, as the music makes plain, was the human dilemma, the torment of the sturdy warrior who unthinkingly destroys the emotional dimension of his life in the interests of a victory that will obliterate his unworthy origins.

Even this might seem an interpretation too far. The sacrifice of family for military success was a theme that interested 18th-century composers, and Handel’s treatment of it is fairly conventional, though of course on a far higher plane than anything before Mozart’s Idomeneo.

The oratorio genre gave him a pretext for some terrific choruses, not normally possible in opera of the day. But the forms are sculptural, cut in stone, not dramatic in the narrative sense. Fugal choruses and da capo arias (ABA form) don’t go well with the kind of bustling action that Katie Mitchell imposes on them. Above all they conflict with the clichés of modern production: the inevitable stout men in grey suits and trilbies, the women in their drab, calf-length dresses and silly, percher hats, the political apparatus of modern teledrama, the maps and campaign tables, the flash cameras, the servants faffing around with documents and blankets while singers are battling with difficult coloratura. The omnipresent chorus makes nonsense of certain scenes, but can’t be got rid of. As for the “thousands of armed cherubim” who secure Jephtha’s victory, one can only blink at the thought of a modern state that counts on (and gets) this kind of help.

Verism, to put it bluntly, is completely out of place. Vicki Mortimer’s designs are brilliant. They would do perfectly for a soap opera about post-war life in an occupied territory. The rapid scene-changes are masterly, miraculous even, like cinematic quick fades (a device already used by this team in Katya Kabanova). All, alas, wasted on Handel, whose pace is from another world.

WNO cast the revival solidly. Robert Murray is a dependable if slightly colourless Jephtha, not helped by having to sing his great aria, “Waft her, angels, through the skies”, sitting upstage on the art-deco staircase, and invisible (from my seat) behind a man in a chair with his back to the audience. This is Hamor, Iphis’s fiancé, an alto role well taken by Robin Blaze but also undermined by the modern idiom, which tends to distrust soldiers with girlish voices. Also not helped by such issues is Alan Ewing, as Jephtha’s stolid but ineffectual brother Zebul, and the walk-on part of the rescuing Angel (Claire Ormshaw), a character who might well be useful in the Middle East today (not to mention Brussels), but is usually otherwise engaged.

The stars of the show are the Iphis, Fflur Wyn (pictured on page one), the only survivor from the last revival, and Diana Montague, still marvellously focused and secure as her mother, Storgè. Wyn keeps her poise vocally throughout, but is finally defeated dramatically by the interminable scene of her intended sacrifice, which Handel composed for the concert platform, ignoring the needs of the curtained stage.

This is a big night for the wonderful WNO chorus, and they acquit themselves superbly on the whole, though their physical presence is sometimes an embarrassment – to them (I suspect) as well as us in the audience. The invisible orchestra, under Paul Goodwin, was not always quite so sure of itself on the first night: much lovely obbligato playing in the arias, some untidiness in the overture and, more surprisingly, in the final act, where coordination with the stage was variable. Not wholly surprising. There was a lot to coordinate.

What interested Handel was the torment of the sturdy warrior who unthinkingly destroys the emotional dimension

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Stephen Walsh's detailed review has highlighted a feature of this production which I find very annoying. Namely setting the stage in such a way that many in the audience cannot see what is happening. Many directors are guilty of this but for Katie Mitchell to block the view of the singer in his most important aria - one of Handel's very greatest - is criminal. Did she ever deign to go into the auditorium and see the fault? Was no-one from WNO brave (intelligent) enough to tell her?

You're both right, of course, and what astonishes me is that this was a basic flaw when the production aired at English National Opera a few years back. No-one seems to have persuaded KM it didn't work then, and it clearly doesn't work now. From where I was sitting at the time (a good seat), the sound of the singers as well as the sightlines frequently got blocked.

Perhaps a few of the "stout men" of WNO's magnificent chorus who's physical appearance Mr Walsh finds such "an embarrassment" should take him aside and tell him, with a colourful burst of Welsh vehemence that such references to a singer's physique, whether short, tall, portly, slender, hirsute, bald or bespectacled should have no place in an arts column!

The embarrassment, as I hoped was clear, had nothing to do with any chorus member's physique, but with the mere constant presence of the chorus onstage. They get in the way. As for commenting on the physical appearance of soloists, I have to disagree profoundly with Martin Furber. Overweight singers are part of what one sees on the stage and therefore part of the drama. One shouldn't have to shut one's eyes. He'll be telling me soon it's rude to comment on their voices (which are actually probably less their fault).

Luckily the sightlines from our seats in the Birmingham Hippodrome were clear. I enjoyed all the singing (some great chorus work) and it was hard to fault the acting - Iphis particularly good in a role wihich (I imagine) can be passive and wan. I thought Katie Mitchell's use of the central curving staircase was inspired and the technique of seating characters at key moments on downstage chairs facing upstage worked well. However I remianed uneasy about the very specific costumes and haircuts which resonated with Cagney and even Bugsy Malone! And we seemed to be inside a grande bourgeoise house (in Beirut?) which had just suffered attack from howitzers. All this sat uneasily on top of Handel's and Morell's Augustan interpretation of the ancient story.

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