Prom 55: Handel’s Jephtha

Prom 55: Handel’s Jephtha
Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Chorus, Richard Egarr
Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2019

Following on from last year’s Theodora, the BBC Proms Handel cycle continued with Jephtha, Handel’s last oratorio. It was composed in 1751 as his sight was failing. 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.

The plot is based on the Old Testament story (from the book of Judges) of Jephthah, who led a battle against the Ammonites, having earlier promised God, in a moment of rather un-judgelike insanity, that he will sacrifice the first thing that he sees on his return. God being God, and in control of everything, the first thing Jephtha see is his daughter Iphis who, in the Biblical story, is duly sacrificed to God, after spending a couple of months on a mountain bemoaning her virginity. As happened 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. 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, storyline. Handel’s reluctance to go with Biblical ‘scholarship’ is rather telling. One passage of text given to him by librettist Rev. Thomas Morell includes the words “What God ordains — is right.” Handel changed this to “Whatever is — is right”. On several other occasions he removes the word ‘God’

It was first performed at Covent Garden Theatre in February 1752. Staged performances of biblical subjects were forbidden when the work was premiered, so it was presented without any scenery or costumes. It is often performed as a staged ‘opera’, but this performance was in oratorio form, the singers moving centre stage for their piece, with practically no interaction between them. It opened with the rather bizarre appearance of bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum as Zebul as he might have appeared in a Harry Potter film, his flowing, well below shoulder-length, locks and below-knee length trench coat suggesting that the dress-code instructions might have become confused between Handel oratorio and an Albert Hall Goth-Night. His syncopated opening aria Pour forth no more unheeded pray’rs leads to the first chorus as the Israelites transfer their allegiance from Ammon’s god and king to Jehovah, Handel depicting the switch by moving from a bouncy chorus to a godly fugue. As most of the rest of the chorus are in praise of Jehovah, fugues become quite a thing.

Jephtha appears, in the more suitably clad frame of Allan Clayton, ready to do battle, his confidence shown in the rumpty-tump rhythms of Goodness shall make me great. Storgè, his wife (Hilary Summers) reminds us ‘how trivial are a wife’s concerns‘ before the love interest of Hamor and Iphis (Tim Mead and Jeanine De Bique). The battle takes place during the interval, the story then unfolding until the appearance of The Angel (Rowan Pierce) to herald the (apparently) happy ending of Iphis’s everlasting virgin-state, something that Hamor accepts with remarkably good grace.

The orchestra were the modern instrument Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but the sound they produced, combined with their evident understanding of Baroque style, matched many a specialist period-instrument band. Although using modern bows, the violinsts used shorter bow strokes and used a more ‘authentic’ bow grip. Apart from the two harpsichords and a theorbo, each played by period specialists, the only other period instruments were the Baroque-style timpani and sticks, played very well by Louise Goodwin. I was rather surprised that the trumpeters didn’t used period instruments, as is often done in modern instruments orchestras playing Baroque music. The other key instrumentalist was flautist Ahran Kim, with several key solo moments. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus were similarly impressive, with some gutsy and energetic singing encouraged by conductor Richard Egarr, who delighted in punching out key words.

The soloists were all impressive, with only Tim Mead letting his vibrato affect pitch and intonation. Hilary Summers’ Scenes of horror, scenes of woe was suitably dramatic. I particularly liked Jeanine De Bique’s singing as Iphis.

As usual, you can hear the whole thing on BBC iPlayer.