Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Jephtha - The Sixteen at the Barbican

James Gilchrist
James Gilchrist
Handel - Jephtha: The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, James Gilchrist: Barbican Centre, London
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 14 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Intensely compelling performance of Handel's remarkable final oratorio.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen brought Handel's final oratorio, Jephtha, to the Barbican (14 January 2014) preparatory to recording the work. The cast of experienced Handelians included James Gilchrist in the title role, with Susan Bickley as his wife Storge, Sophie Bevan as his daughter Iphis, Robin Blaze as her fiancee Hamor and Matthew Brook as Jephtha's brother Zebul. The result was a finely dramatic performance which bodes well for the recording, to be released later this year on the Coro label.

Handel's oratorio, with a libretto by Revd Thomas Morrell, was written not for the stage but for concert performance, and the intention was to point a moral via uplifting music. Morrell's libretto might not be the best literary creation, but it gave Handel the opportunity to create some powerful music. Morrell used a heavy admixture of Euripides with the biblical plot and an important key to his libretto is Jephtha's family's reaction to the events. For this to work, they must be established as characters and so the first three scenes give us a sequence of arias, one for each of the five main characters, ending with a duet for the lovers Hamor and Iphis. It is not the most dramatic of sequences, and can be tricky to make work on stage.

One of the virtues of the Barbican performance was how each of the five singers, Matthew Brook, James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Robin Blaze and Sophie Bevan made their character count and made us feel that they and their music really mattered dramatically. This was particularly true with Robin Blaze's character Hamor. He is necessary in order to give Iphis a life that she will miss, but Hamor's actual music rarely takes plot or drama forward. Blaze brought a vivid sense of character to his performance.

Handel emphasises the group nature of the characters by giving, Iphis, Hamor, Storge and Jephtha a quartet  of reaction to Jephtha's vow in Act 2; a remarkable and prescient piece of writing which is a genuine quartet with four different vocal characters. When Handel revived the work in 1753 he trimmed the end of Act 3 after the angel's appearance (Winton Dean is very dismissive of the arias at this point) and instead introduced a quintet. This was the version performed at the Barbican. This quintet is not a genuine one, instead it is a duet for Iphis and Hamor with a contributory coro from Storge, Jephtha and Zebul. A construction familiar from the conclusions of some of Handel's Italian operas.
James Gilchrist made an intense Jephtha, perhaps not quite so much the self-absorbed zealot that he was on stage at the Buxton Festival, but still with a profound sense of the character's inward religious certainty. Gilchrist is a fine and stylish Handelian, his opening aria, Virtue my soul, was fluidly fluent and sung with vivid, bright tone. But when the real drama started, with Jephtha's vow, Gilchrist sang the accompagnato with a powerful intensity. With His mighty arm at the beginning of Act 2, though a more conventional piece which Gilchrist sang with decisive confidence and fine passagework, he also brought a compelling intensity to it. In the recitative and aria, Open thy marble jaws, O tomb, when Jephtha sees his daughter and realises the result of his vow, Gilchrist combined drama with great musicality and made us hang on to every note.

Handel closes Act 2 with a truly remarkable sequence, Jephtha's accompagnato Deeper and deeper still followed by the chorus How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees. Gilchrist made the accompagnato fine-grained but dramatic, bringing a vivid power to his voice when necessary. Handel wrote the role of Jephtha for the great tenor John Beard. Beard was a fine actor with a robust voice which could also encompass both Handel's Samson and his more lyrical roles, though Handel never wrote anything really florid for him. A singing must bring a combination of flexibility and power to the role, with a certain focussed intensity. This Gilchrist did and the result, in Deeper and deeper still, was finely moving. Act 3 opens with Jephtha's sequence of aria, Jide thou thy hated beams, accompagnato and aria, Waft her angels with the latter aria being rightly famous. We were not disappointed here and Gilchrist sang with a lovely sense of line and profoundly beautifully tone. The fine expressiveness of the opening was transformed when Gilchrist unleashed real power in the middle section.

From the outset, Susan Bickley showed commitment and identification with her character, creating Storge from the first notes she sang. Her first aria, In gentle murmurs will I mourn was fabulously fluent but with an affecting edge to the timbre of her voice. Later in the act Handel and Morrell allow Storge to really develop with Scenes of horror, scenes of woe. Here Bickley started the aria with great technical poise and a nicely vivid feeling, then gradually developed so that the da capo was intense indeed. In Act 2, on hearing the result of Jephtha's vow, Storge has an accompagnato and aria which opens First perish though, and perish all the world and her Bickley virtually spat the words out. But one of the virtues of her performance was that, though she had a clear sense of the drama, it was always with the confines of what Handel wrote; she used the music to achieve her ends quite vividly without ever distorting the vocal line.

Sophie Bevan brought a grave and sombre beauty to the role of Iphis. The character gets some charming and pastoral music, but there was little sense of the flirtatious tone which some singers use. Instead Bevan was thoughtful from the first. Take the heart you fondly gave in Act 1 was graceful yet sober. Later in the act The smiling dawn of happy days was lively and  full of wholesome charm, plus there was some fabulous passage-work. In Act 2, Tune the soft melodious lute was sung with fine grained beauty, complemented with some fine flute playing Welcome as the cheerful light when she greets her father was simply lovely, a fine counterpoint to Jephtha's dramatic reaction. Her reaction to the vow in that act was an accompagnato full of resigned acceptance followed by a plangently sung aria, Happy they which was direct, simple and very moving.  Her farewell in Act 3, Farewell, ye limpid springs and floods was finely done, again full of a grave and sombre beauty.

Robin Blaze's account of Hamor's first aria, Dull delay, in piercing anguish was surprisingly characterful and full of an appealing and gentle ardour which characterised his whole performance. Blaze's and Bevan's duet in Act 1 was full of charm with the two voices moving finely in concert, complemented by rhythmic interest in the strings. Hamor's aria at the beginning of Act 2, Up the dreadful steep ascending, after he has recounted the outcome of the battle, was sung by Blaze with great technical facility, but he was also very vivid, making the aria seem dramatically valid rather than holding things up. This was also true of On me let blind mistaken zeal, Hamor's reaction to the results of Jephtha's vow, and which Blaze made you feel that the piece really mattered.

Matthew Brook's Zebul got his bit moment at the beginning, with his accompagnato and aria Pour forth no more unheeded prayers. Brook sang with great commitment and a nicely focussed, grainy baritone voice. His later contributions were restricted to recitative, the quintet, but no less fine for that.

The quartet was superbly done, the four singers Bevan, Bickley, Blaze and Gilchrist giving full power to Handel's remarkable writing.

Grace Davidson, from the choir, was the Angel, giving a nicely poised account of her aria.

The Sixteen sang with their familiar commitment and energy. The choruses in Jephtha are not the showiest that Handel wrote, instead we get some writing of extraordinary power and intensity to which the chorus responded with fine control and brilliant sense of drama. The chorus which closes Act 2 has a very striking structure and her the singers gave us a performance of grave and sober beauty.

Christophers and the orchestra brought a nice rhythmic crispness and great vividness to the playing from the first notes of the overture with some notable solo moments for various instruments. Christophers used harp, theorbo, harpsichord and organ for the continue which gave us a nice variety of textures, though I am not sure whether the inclusion of a harp in the line-up would please purists.

The programme book included a fine essay by Ruth Smith and came complete with printed words, no projected surtitles here thank goodness. The performance was done with a single interval, after Act 1, and I have to say that I still think that these pieces work best with two intervals.

This was a finely compelling performance of one of Handel's major works and I certainly look forward to the recording. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Winton Dean, the great writer on Handel (and many other things) who died last year.

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