Wednesday 3 October 2012

Staging Handel - two different productions of Jephtha

"Jephtha's Rash Vow" (1807), by James Gundee & M. Jones, London.
Jephtha's Rash Vow (1807)
by James Gundee & M. Jones

There was a convention with Handel’s opera and oratorio performances whereby dialogue not set by the composer could still be printed in the word books, thus giving the audience a more detailed picture of the action. And with the failure of his opera Ezio in 1732, Handel seems to have lost confidence in the London audience’s appetite for vast acres of Italian recitative, his following opera Sosarme had its dialogue cut to the point of incomprehensibility and he would never again set a long Italian text, in fact for the remaining 9 years of writing Italian opera, he would experiment with what the form exactly was.

With oratorio there was even less requirement for narrative completeness, after all the oratorios mostly were based on biblical stories which would be well known. For reasons of length, Handel cut Jennens’s libretto for Belshazzar  considerably. Jennens’s librettos were some of the best constructed of those written for Handel oratorios. Not every other came up to the same level, in Joseph and his Brethren (libretto by James Miller) there is no attempt at dramatic continuity, the audience is presumed to know what is going on and are presented with a series of dramatic tableaux. This element is present in most of the oratorios in some form. If you read the word book to Saul or to Jephtha there is no way that the dialogue comes over as a complete dramatic entity. It requires Handel’s music to bring it alive.

The libretto of Jephtha was written for Handel by Thomas Morrell. Morrell was a scholar of Greek drama, a quite worker and willing to be flexible and write words to suit Handel’s requirements. So though his libretto’s are not the finest, they allow space of Handel’s music. Jeptha and Theodora are great music dramas because of Handel’s contribution, without the music the drama would be threadbare.

This is one of the big problems with staging the oratorios, much of the narrative is not there, instead you have a series of linked set pieces with the music detailing the characters developments. In effect, musical tableaux and of course the tableaux would make sense to Handel’s audience as such things were used for entertainment in people’s houses.

Having seen two very different productions of Jephtha this year (at the Buxton Festival and WNO in Cardiff), this set me thinking about the problems staging Handel’s dramatic oratorios.

When Buxton staged Handel’s Saul a few years ago, it was set in the contemporary Middle East, projecting the biblical story onto modern event. This is very tempting, especially as many of Handel’s works can be seen to have resonances with the political events of his day. But this sort of staging gives the director a ready-made context and story which will help fill in the narrative gaps and provide a helpful backdrop for the audience.

Katie Mitchell did something similar in her production of Jephtha which WNO recently revived with Robert Murray in the title role. Here Mitchell set the piece in the 1940’s in a familiar war torn environment. Jephtha and the other characters were familiar types, and Mitchell let the narrative unfold via constant action which happened during the music. Illustrating it but also going against it and providing an interesting interplay. She gave us a very clear context for Jephtha’s actions, a particular social milieu.

For Buxton, Frederic Wake Walker did something completely different, choosing to base his staging on the music and follow that. This meant that the opening had very little action, was almost a concert performance, because that is what happens in Handel’s oratorio. The initial scenes are simply there to introduce the characters and their inter-relations, only then does drama develop. James Gilchrist’s Jephtha was not placed in a social milieu, but was developed with remarkable intensity by Gilchrist as a sort of religious inspired zealot. The production did rather divide opinion but made you think. It showed that there was an expressive way of staging an oratorio with adding a welter of extra narrative detail.

Wake Walker’s expressionist, semi-abstract production meant that during the choruses he was free to introduce whatever movement he felt suitable, not having to stick to a realistic narrative. Mitchell at WNO on the other hand, had her chorus in constant, realistic motion with much dramatic coming and going.

Both of these were solutions to the problem presented by the choruses in Handel’s oratorios. These choruses are large-scale dramatic creatures, but Handel wrote them with no thought of what might be happening on stage. Handel was a naturally dramatic composer and though his oratorios were not written to be staged, he could not help but give them a dramatic structure and make the works seductive to the stage director. But the sheer size of some of the choruses causes a problem, with the suggestion that the singers are moving about simply to have something to do.

Peter Sellers in his famous staging of Theodora at Glyndebourne solved it by giving the singers a repertoire of expressive but stylised hand movements, which frankly you either loved or hated. Robert Carsen in his production of Semele at the London Coliseum resorted to the choreographed look, with the singers moving around the stage, at times seeming to mark time. Mitchell’s approach, though at times distracting, has the virtue that stage action has a coherent dramatic flow which exists almost independent of the music; the singers have a reason for their movement. And Wake Walker gave us almost pure choreography, a direct expression of the music.

In some oratorios the chorus changes its role (eg from Israelites to Persians in Belshazzar) and these changes can occur without thought to logistics. Oratorios were essentially dramas of the mind, the action played out in the ideal theatre in Handel’s head. It would be interesting to learn what the composer really thought, but we shall probably never know.

In an oratorio like Susanna, the chorus moves from participation in the action to comment on it from outside and back again; sometimes, as with the envy chorus in Saul this can be easily incorporated into the staged drama. But the framing of Susanna with huge Greek style choruses is a problem and I have seen stagings which solved the problem simply by cutting the more inconvenient choruses!

This leads us back again to thoughts about what is actually happening. In Saul,  Handel and Jennens dispatch some moments of the drama with great brevity, Saul himself expresses himself mainly in recitative rather than aria. But Saul also includes quite a few instrumental movements depicting events. Did Handel imagine stage action in his head, was he thinking in terms of ballet movements. Handel did write ballets and famously used Marie Salle’s company to great effect in Alcina  and in Ariodante. Though there is a suggestion that the most effective moment in Ariodante, at the end of act 2 when Ginevra’s dark dreams are given form, was never actually staged.

Perhaps this is one of the attractions of staging Handel’s oratorios, the way the essential drama of Handel’s music rather than prescribing detailed action, gives space for the director’s own creativity. To stage an opera seria requires the director to engage with the genre’s various rules; to stage an oratorio is to enter territory without any rules.

My review of Buxton Festival's Jephtha
My review of WNO's Jephtha on

Further feature articles on Handel

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