It is the last oratorio composed by Handel, who became completely blind a short time after finishing it. The story is biblical: Jephtha is a Jewish general who fights in a war against the Ammonites; he makes a solemn vow to God that, if he is granted victory, he will sacrifice to God the first creature he sees when he comes home from the battle. What could possibly go wrong? He wins, he comes home, and his only daughter greets the great warrior on his doorsteps. He is in despair, his wife is out of her mind, but the daughter herself is kind of resigned: he has made a sacred vow to God, there’s nothing they can do. At the last moment, before she gets killed, an angel appears and stops Jephtha: she can be “sacrificed” to God in the sense that she will dedicate her life to God, kind of like a nun. This is, of course, an edulcorated version: in the bible Jephtha kills his daughter in sacrifice to God, and that’s that.
From a musical point of view, this is a typical Handel oratorio: big choruses, beautiful arias, fantastic music. The orchestra was Concerto Köln, directed by Ivor Bolton, who I had already heard in Handel and Rameu. They are amazingly good. Bolton has a very baroque gesture, he draws arabesques in the air, but he is extremely precise in giving attacks to everybody, orchestra, chorus and singers. He and the orchestra really understand Handel, and the result is breath-taking.
The opera theatre in Amsterdam is pretty big, and the baroque singers did not manage to project as effciently as in other venues. One may think it is a fault of their voices, but I have heard Anna Prohaska elsewhere, and she has more sound than that. I think that most of the fault is of the production: the scene didn’t provide anything behind the poor singers to help them project forward, the stage was empty, behind them, and their voices got a bit lost. Usual idiotic opera directors. A part from this obvious mistake, the production wasn’t bad at all, very simple, but extremely effective. When Jephtha approaches the sacrificial altar, where his daughter is tied ready to be slaughtered, with a knife in his hand, breathing very heavily (he can’t bring himself to do it, of course), the theatre fell dead silent. Not a whisper, we all in the audience were holding our breath, it was really intense. When such things happen, it means that the show was a success!
Jephtha was the tenor Richard Croft, a British baroque specialist, who can really sing this stuff. Great coloratura, the right color in the voice, and a magnificent interpretation. The aria Waft her, angels, through the skies, where he bids farewell to her daughter, brought tears in my eyes. He has amazing breath, he seems to never breath in the coloratura passages.
His daughter, Iphis, was Anna Prohaska, who I have already heard in Rameau, and I really liked her. Here, as I was saying, her voice sounded a bit smaller, but I’m sure it’s the venue. She still featured a very round and smooth sound, and a very agile voice, which I enjoyed very much. She was also very convincing in her acting.
Her fiancée, Hamor, was the countertenor Bejun Mehta, and he is kind of the reason for my trip. He is the nephew of Zubin Mehta, and he is AMAZING!! Maybe the best countertenor I have ever heard. Well, Fagioli is in a category of his own, and I still have a soft spot for Dumaux, but man, this guy rocks! I was not completely convinced at the beginning, he sounded a bit imprecise in the rhythm, but the following duet with Prohaska was wonderful. Their voices a perfect blend of emotion and baroque precision. His great aria, a typical Handel countertenor aria, with horribly hard coloratura and great “furore”, was brilliant. His coloratura is precise and bubbly, his voice is never too metallic or harsh. The timbre of the voice is the thing that convinced me the most: it has a very diverse palette of colors, which is not so common, with countertenors. I can’t wait to hear him in Rodelinda in Madrid!
Jephtha’s wife, and Iphis’ mother, Storgé, was Wiebke Lehmkuhl, who has a very warm and round mezzo voice, and managed to stop the show with her aria Scenes of horror, scenes of woe, where she tells of a premonition of the ill fate that is going to fall on her daughter. She is very good in her interpretation, and her rage at Jephtha, when he comes home and tells her that their daughter needs to be killed, is extremely believable.
The bass Florian Boesch sung Zebul, Jephtha’s brother. Another great baroque specialist, he doesn’t have a great part, but he held his own.
Honorable mention for Ana Quintans, in the part of the angel: she has a very short part, but very important, and carried out her aria with competence, poignancy and a fantastic stage presence.
The chorus! The chorus was amazing! As usual, the chorus is around for the whole oratorio, giving advice, commentaries, and driving the show forward. They were impeccable in their entrances, their sound was appropriately baroque, and they also managed to move on the stage in a reasonable way.
I would like to point out a few things which I really liked, about the direction. When Jephtha and Hamor come back from the war, they have some victorious kind of music to sing, but in this production they were not acting heroic and triumphant. They were dirty, weary, and overall worn out from all that death. In full PTSD, I would say, in modern terms. This made their characters much more human and easy to relate to, because anybody who’s been slaughtering human beings for the past few days, is not OK. Unless he’s a psychopath. Hamor, moreover, is also severely wounded, and, when Iphis is saved by the angel, he dies on the stage. At the same time, Iphis is shown wearing a nun habit, and sitting on a simple nun-like bed, plucking at the feathers of her pillow, clearly deranged and out of her mind. So not really a happy ending, but an ending which, in my opinion, speaks much more to our modern sensibility. And all this without absurd stuff on stage which destroys the libretto and the music. You see? it is possible.