Monday 22 May 2017

Handel's Jephtha at London Festival of Baroque Music

Jephtha's Rash Vow" (1807), by James Gundee & M. Jones, London
Jephtha's Rash Vow (1807),
by James Gundee & M. Jones, London
Handel Jephtha; Nick Pritchard, Helen Charlston, Matthew Brook, Mary Bevan, James Hall, Rowan Pierce, Holst Singers, Academy of Ancient Music, Stephen Layton; London Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A predominantly young cast in a thoughtful and moving account of Handel's last oratorio

The London Festival of Baroque Music concluded at St John's Smith Square on Saturday 20 May 2017 with a performance of Handel's oratorio Jephtha. Stephen Layton conducted the Holst Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music with Nick Pritchard as Jephtha, Helen Charlston as Storgè, Matthew Brook as Zebul, James Hall as Hamor, Mary Bevan as Iphis and Rowan Pierce as the Angel.

Jephtha is regarded as Handel's final oratorio. It was written whilst he was suffering badly with his eyesight and premiered in 1752, after which Handel only managed to produce The Triumph of Truth and Time which was effectively an English re-write of his early Italian oratorio, produced with the aid of Joseph Smith as amanuensis. Jephtha has almost become main-stream now, there have been staged performances at the Buxton Festival, at English National Opera and at Welsh National Opera, and it was performed a few years ago at the London Handel Festival, with tenors such as James Gilchrist, Mark Padmore, John Mark Ainsley and Robert Murray essaying the title role.

So it is easy to forget quite how 'at the edge' the piece was when first written. The title role was written for the great tenor John Beard, the final celebration of a talent which had inspired Handel to create a series of striking tenor roles, elevating the tenor voice in a way that was practically unheard of in the earlier Baroque period. The libretto explores some dark places, librettist Thomas Morrell incorporated elements of Greek drama into his re-working of the biblical story. Whilst Morrell was concerned to point a moral, Handel's music re-focuses the drama making it more human and it is hard not to identify the intensity of Jephtha's predicament with Handel's own struggles with his sight.

John Beard clearly had quite a robust, yet flexible voice, his roles for Handel stretch from the lyrical in L'Allegro right through do the dramatic tour-de-force of the title role in Samson. The young tenor Nick Pritchard is very much a lyric tenor and his voice does not (yet) have either the dramatic heft or the spinto blade to either dominate or cut through the orchestra and he sensibly offered a lyric account of the role.
Thoughtful and beautifully sung, this was a very straight Jephtha offering none of the neuroses, religious fervour or martial swagger which we have seen on stage in this role. It is a perfectly valid account and Pritchard brought great cumulative power to the performance, but in the early stages I thought that a good stage director might have managed to make his connection to the words come over with more vividness. This was particularly true in Jephtha's Act One vow, which Handel set as an accompagnato, where Pritchard displayed firm commitment when I wanted just a little more.

Once we reached the nub of the drama in Act Two, Pritchard's strength started to build and his sheer commitment to music and to text really counted. He combined beauty of line with giving a strength to the words so that his initial reaction to seeing Iphis was very direct and wonderfully frank; uncomplex yet deeply felt. And 'Waft her, angels' was notable for the way Pritchard achieved his ends by sheer beauty of tone and line.

He and Helen Charlston's Storgè brought a striking sense of contrast to the moment of Storgè's intense reaction to the news, 'First perish though, and perish all the world', emphasised by the contrast between the quiet, lyric beauty of Pritchard's preceding recitative and the vivid intensity, almost like a slap, of Charlston's entry. Charlston's Storgè moved finely from the beautifully shaped expressiveness of her opening aria, through great strength of feeling in 'Scenes of horror' to her vibrant reaction to the events of Act Two. Throughout Charlston showed an ability to combined vividness of expression with musicality, using her dark-hued voice to great effect though she seemed to loose focus in the very lower register. Like Pritchard she paid great attention to the words; this was a performance where we hardly needed the printed libretto to follow the dramatic action in the soloists.

Mary Bevan brought great charm and a natural ease of communication to the role of Iphis, giving just the right amount of intensity and edge to the opening joyful celebrations of her union with Hamor, and reacting to the news in Act Two with touching simplicity in a very moving accompagnato and aria. Her Act Three aria before her intended death had a quiet dignity to it which was very moving.

The role of Hamor is essentially to show what Iphis will be missing when she takes her vow of perpetual virginity, so any singer in the role has to struggle to make the character something more than Tim Nice-but-Dim. The young counter-tenor James Hall sang throughout with great beauty of tone and a commitment to word and line which bodes well for his career, and I look forward to hearing him in many other roles. Initially he was a little too reticent, so that Tim Nice-but-Dim was rather to the fore, and I could have wished for a more vivid engagement with the words in Hamor's description of Jephtha's battle triumph at the opening of Act Two. But Hall's reaction to Iphis's death sentence was touching and his final aria (after Iphis's reprieve and sentence of perpetual virginity) nobly moving.

The role of Jephtha's brother Zebul is that of narrator and commentator, but Matthew Brook brought such a sense of vivid engagement with the drama, combined with a nice sense of Handelian musical style, that his recitatives and arias became an essential part of the musical drama. Rowan Pierce made a strong effect in the small role of the Angel, giving a real sense of character to her recitative and bringing a feeling of joy in her aria.

The chorus has a large role to play in this piece, mainly as commentators. Though there are moments when the Chorus of Israelites takes part in the dramatic action, mainly it is the Greek Chorus-style commentary such as the concluding chorus to Act Two ('Whatever is, is right') which is to the fore. The Holst Singers (numbering around 36) suffered from the usual St John's Smith Square problem that the rear half of the chorus was placed effectively in an alcove behind the pillars and the large red drapes. Though some moments came over strongly, such as the rousing final chorus, too often the words were occluded (for the choruses I did need the printed libretto), and 'Whatever is, is right' was simply not trenchant enough. From my seat in row F, I could see that the singers were working hard and enunciating like mad, but this did not always carry; it was the quieter moments which came over best such as the concentrated power of the chorus of priests at the beginning of Act Three.

The performance used a chamber organ (played by William Whitehead), which seemed to be rather too small in scale to provide the right support for the choir. As ever, I wish that it was possible for performers to use the St John's Smith Square organ on such occasions. Also, Stephen Layton had the organ playing in rather too many of the recitatives and arias, Handel generally reserved it for a special effect here and if Layton had wanted to enrichen the orchestration he should have doubled the oboes and bassoon.

The Academy of Ancient Music provided sterling support throughout, giving a fine account of the overture and providing strength, flexibility and subtlety as needed in the remainder of the drama. There were some lovely instrumental moments, what with Rachel Brown's flute, and some notable entries from the horns (Huw Evans and David Bentley).

The performance was given with one interval, after Act Two, which meant we had a first 'half' lasting 1 hour 50 minutes, and a second 'half' lasting around 45 minutes. Given that the performance was under festival conditions and on a Saturday, it would surely have been possible to start 30 minutes earlier and have two intervals, thus respecting Handel's drama and not shoe-horning the first two acts into a single knee achingly long span.

Having heard Jephtha in dramatic format on stage, it was a contrast to experience Stephen Layton's relatively non-invasive approach to the drama. By simply letting things unfold he was reliant on the drama created by individual performers, and whilst he got a good performance from his choir and the orchestra, overall I really wanted Handel's intense drama whipped into a more dramatic form.

Next year's London Festival of Baroque Music runs from 11 to 19 May 2018, with conductor and musicologist Sébastien Daucé as the Guest Artistic Director and performances will include Gluck's 1762 version of Orfeo with Iestyn Davies in the title role, and a staging of Charpentier's Histoires Sacrées.

Outgoing artistic director of the London Festival of Baroque Music, Lindsay Kemp, is moving on to other things and is artistic director of a new festival Baroque at the Edge which is at LSO St Lukes, 5-7 January 2018.

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