Thursday 12 July 2012

Buxton Festival - Jephtha

James Gilchrist as Jephtha, Buxton Festival
James Gilchrist (Jephtha) and Chorus
Handel's oratorios are dramas of the mind; Handel wrote them with no thought of staging, liberated from the requirements of the theatre of his day. A natural dramatist, his oratorios have seemed to cry out for transfer to the stage and this has become commonplace in recent years. But with discontinuous plotlines, minimal dialogue and long static choruses, a director must address how the piece is to fill the stage. Usually this is done by projecting the work's story onto a contemporary analogous plot – works like Jephtha, Susannah,, Theodora and Saul seem to cry out for this. The result though can be a production which is unnecessarily busy, which seems to mistrust the music by overlaying it with innumerable stage details. For his new production of Jephtha at the Buxton Festival, seen 11 July, Frederic Wake-Walker eschewed this approach.
My only previous exposure to Wake-Walker's work was his striking version of Bow Down for The Opera Group, where Wake-Walker and the cast devised a scenario to fit Harrison Birtwistle's music and Tony Harrison's text.

Acting as his own designer, for Jephtha Wake-Walker has done something similar. Using a bare stage, with just five metal chairs and a music stand, Wake-Walker devised a staging which attempted to do noting less than convey the music. He did not remedy the discontinuities in the plot, he staged Handel's Jephtha as writ. First and foremost this showed great trust in Handel's music. Wake-Walker did not seem to have the need to keep the stage picture busy, he left us to savour the music and performances.

One of the things that needs to be borne in mind when staging Handel's late oratorios is that Thomas Morrell's librettos are faulty, they do not read as perfect drama. Their basic construction is generally sound, but the gaps allowed Handel to fill in what was lacking with his music; and in some cases to change the sense of the libretto by musical means. So that in any attempt at staging, it is the music which would need to be prime; trying to stage the libretto would be bound to fail in some way.

Jephtha opens quite statically, with an aria for each of the major characters and very little dialogue. The staging opened on a bare stage with the house lights up, the cast assembled, each coming on to check the auditorium before their formal entry. At first sight this was Gillian Keith, William Purefoy, Susan Bickley, James Gilchrist and Jonathan Best but by little details you realised that these were actually Iphis, Hamor, Storge, Jephtha and Zebul coming on. Gilchrist took his shoes and socks off to pray, Bickley tidied up.

This continued during the first five arias, ostensibly a concert performance but the singers reacted in character to the music being sung. One notable point was that from the very outset Jephtha was presented as a religious zealot, Gilchrist's performance of Jephtha's first aria was one of the most alarmingly intense that I have ever heard. It made sense of all the events which would unfold.

Before Jephtha's vow, the remaining cast left the stage, expecting him to join them. Instead he stayed and under a blinding light, made his vow, a logical extension to his preceding aria.

The chorus were dressed in loose black clothes with huge black ruffs and white skull caps. Vaguely like pierrots, in their first chorus, back-lit, they looked unutterably sinister. During this Gilchrist pulled a stocking over his head, forming his face into a silent scream.

It is here that we must address the issue of Wake-Walker's iconography which was, frankly, puzzling at times. Not being able to attend the first night, I missed the director's pre-concert talk so had to muddle through on my own. But it is too easy to get hung up on iconography and narrative action, what is the character doing and why? It helps, I think, to consider the staging as a choreographed event, rather than a pure narrative, with movement acting as an expression of the emotion rather than telling a direct story.

From the moment of Jephtha's vow, Wake-Walker built up an atmosphere of tension and foreboding. Susan Bickley's account of Storge's aria Scenes of horror was intense and involving. And the atmosphere was not dispelled by Gillian Keith's attempts at brightness and cheer during Iphis's aria.

The concluding chorus to act 1 was one which presented the greatest difficulty to the audience, with the chorus moving almost blindly, struggling with the chairs on-stage. But as an expression of the tensions within the music, it was a haunting image.

The single interval wasa taken after act 1, with acts 2 and 3 played in a single, intense arc.

William Purefoy and Gillian Keith, Jephtha, Buxton Festival 2012
William Purefoy and Gillian Keith
The role of Hamor is something of a problem on. The character does not really do anything, he exists because Handel and his librettist, Morrell, needed a foil for Iphis. If she is to bewail her perpetual virginity then she needs a convincing means of losing the virginity..

Wake-Walker and William Purefoy's solution was to play Hamor as writ. So that at the opening of act 2, Purefoy delivered Hamor's recit and aria to himself, as if he was rehearsing it ready to say to Iphis. Though the scene is ostensibly played to Iphis, she plays no part in it and in the next scene she makes not mention of Hamor. So Purefoy's Hamor was perpetually on the outside, hoping and wishing to be included, nerving himself to approach Iphis and longing for a response. It worked because of the detailed way Purefoy presented the character even when apparently not involved – acting by being rather than doing.

The subsequent scenes up to the end of act 2 can be played as pure narrative, and Wake-Walker did so, giving us a dark and brooding account of the score, getting vividly intense performances our of his singers with Gilchrist's coruscating accompanied recitative and Bickley's whiplash response..

For the long, concluding chorus to act 2, the singers came to almost exhausted rest, the chorus each carried a candle and with the successive re-iterations of Whatever is, is right more candles were snuffed out. A haunting and beautiful image, lacking in movement but certainly neither calm nor tranquil.

Gilchrist's rendering of Waft her angels was finely transfigured, but he was in a world of his own and the message had no effect on the other traumatised members of his family, an interesting but entirely valid interpretation.

During the chorus preceding the sacrifice the chorus members slowly lined up behind Gilchrist to reinforce him in his final action. Just before the blow struck, the angel (Elizabeth Karani) appeared from in their midst; a striking and vivid image to match the drama. Iphis's response was one of trauma rather than rejoicing and the whole ending was down beat. The singers reverting to concert presentation from the beginning, but still in character.

One measure of a production's success is not whether the director has made nice stage pictures, but the quality of the performances developed from the singers. On this count, Wake-Walker's production was an outstanding success. It was one of the darkest and vividly intense performances of the work that I have ever seen. All the principals gave powerful performances with Gillian Keith as a radiant Iphis, William Purefoy's anxious, finely sung Hamor and Jonathan Best's strong-man Zebul But the two which stood out were those of Susan Bickley and James Gilchrist. Bickley remains a wonder, with a repertoire that stretches through Wagner to contemporary but still singing Handel with passion, commitment, power and a wonderful sense of line. Her major arias were powerful beacons,making you regret the role of Storge was not longer.

As Jephtha, Gilchrist was transformed, a zealous intensity filled his voice from his very first note. A very personal and powerfuol account of the role, Gilchrist was truly disturbing as a man willing to sacrifice his daughter to his ideals. A performance made all the more intense for being done through the music.

The chorus were on fine form. Handel's choruses in this work are really meaty and the singers clearly relished the opportunities being given them; not only to sing the music but in Wake-Walker's production, to enact the drama as well.

I have to commend Wake-Walker (as his own movement director) and conductor Harry Christophers for ensuring that the choruses, though staged, did not end up compromising the ensemble,

The orchestra gave a strong account of the score, matching the staging in intensity. Christophers supplemented the harpsichord with theorbo and harp in the continuo to ensture it was strong enough in the theatre. It was unfortunate that having the theatre lights up meant that the audience felt at liberty to talk during the fine account of the overture.

Frederic Wake-Walker's powerful production would inveitably not be to everyone's taste. And, whilst there were some who complained and did not return after the interval, there were also those who said that it was one of the finest things that they had heard. I have to concur, this was a stupendously dark and intense performance with a corruscating performance from James Gilchrist in the title role.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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