Iford Arts: Jephtha
Contraband, Christopher Bucknall
Iford Manor, 25 July 2017
Jephtha was Handel’s last oratorio, composed in 1751 as his sight was failing to the extent that at one point in the autograph score he wrote “unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.” It is rather telling that note occurs at the chorus that concludes Act 2, How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees, All hid from mortal sight. Despite Handel’s personal difficulties at the time, and the frankly bizarre Biblical story upon which it is based, it is one of his finest oratorios, full of the most glorious music for six solo singers and chorus with a succession of attractive and dramatic arias linked by relatively short recitatives.
This Iford Arts production, in the delightfully intimate surroundings of the Italianate cloister at Iford Manor, was directed by Timothy Nelson, with Christopher Bucknall directing the 14 instrumentalists of Contraband. It was set in recent times in a fundamentalist (and militaristic) Christian community of cult-like weirdness, led by the controlling Zebel (Frederick Long), with behaviours frequently bordering on what might have been found in a lunatic asylum of Handel’s day. As it happened, on my drive down to Iford, I listened to a Radio 4 broadcast of an account of the 1993 siege of a fundamentalist sect at Waco in Texas. The comparisons were chilling.
The plot is based on the story (from the Old Testament book of Judges) of Jephthah, who led a battle against the Ammonites, having earlier promised God, in a moment of rather un-judge-like insanity, that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house on his return. God being God, and in control of everything, the first thing out of the door is Jephtha’s daughter who, in the Biblical story, is duly sacrificed to God, after spending a couple of months on a mountain bemoaning her virginity.
It is difficult to get into the mindset of an oratorio audience of Handel’s time, or how they might have reacted to the Biblical, or Handel’s, story line. As was his wont in many of his operas, Handel provides a twist to the story by adding a non-Biblical Angel to bring about a happy ending by declaring to Jephtha that Thy daughter, Jephtha, thou must dedicate / To God, in pure and virgin state fore’er, / As not an object meet for sacrifice. This was one of many extraordinarily powerful moments in this production, when the Angel (the very impressive actor/singer Charlotte La Thrope, pictured, a member of the Iford Arts New Generation Artists Programme), already marked out as one of the most devout and weird of the cult followers, goes into extremely well-acted convulsions during the orchestral Symphony, before making her announcement. She is a young singer to watch out for.
The key roles also featured excellent singing and acting, notably from Christopher Turner as Jephtha and Lucy Page as his daughter Iphis (both pictured), and Benjamin Williamson as Hamor, Iphis’s potential future lover. Marianne Vidal excelled in her acting of Iphis’s mother, exposing the horror of what her husband had promised his God. The experience of singing opera in a space of about 50 square metres with the audience sitting within spitting distance must be on that these youngish singers will remember all their musical lives.
Timothy Nelson’s encouraged the singers to explore the human emotional side of the unfolding story, focussing on a series of highly intense and emotional scenes. This was aided by the simple design by Rachel Szmukler, and well-judged lighting by Christopher Nairne, allowing the focus to be on the singers and the action. The only directorial oddity was the key moment when Jephtha first sees Iphis. In the score, Iphis enters with her mother and a chorus of virgins during a ‘Symphony’ and is the first to address Jephtha (with a recitative and aria). But in this production, Jephtha enters at the same time as the chorus, presumably seeing all of them well before he sees Iphis, thus rather negating the principal twist of the plot. Or perhaps I missed something. This was my only slight quibble about the production and interpretation, which was otherwise excellent.
Iford Manor, near Bradford-on-Avon, is the former home of the distinguished Edwardian architect and landscape designer Harold Peto from 1899 until his death in 1933. He created the Italianate gardens that clamber up the hillside above the classical-fronted mediaeval house, with terraces of formal architectural bits and bobs including a tiny recreated Italian cloister. Since 1996, the cloister has been home to summer opera productions, presented by Iford Arts.