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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Handel, ‘Jephtha’ English National Opera: dir. Nicholas Kraemer, 12 May 2005 (ME)

‘How dark, O lord, are thy decrees! All hid from mortal sight!...Whatever is, is right’ sing the chorus at the close of the second act of Handel’s last great work, and this acceptance of divine ruling is not only poignantly ironic in view of the composer’s encroaching blindness as he wrote this music but also indicative of the distance which today’s audiences must travel in terms of acceptance of that which seems unbearable; a similar distance has to be crossed between the straightforward nobility of oratorio and the banality of staging it as a family crisis played out against a World War II backdrop. When this production was first shown by Welsh National Opera it was showered with intemperate ravings, in which words like ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘astonishing’ were freely used both of the singing and the staging: on this hearing, some of the singing was very fine indeed, and some of the production details were illuminating, but there was also much that seemed to need re-thinking.


Half of the cast were returning to their roles from the WNO production, and the best singing from an ‘original’ cast member came from the Iphis, Sarah Tynan, whose bright, ringing voice, fluency and clarity of diction gave constant pleasure. ‘The smiling dawn of happy days’ and ‘Tune the soft melodious lute’ were both genuinely touching despite all the gallimaufry with which the singer had to cope, and ‘Welcome as the cheerful light’ was perfection – as warm, heartfelt and beautifully expressed a welcome as could ever be given a returning hero despite the silly white bunting she had to wave. Indeed, this was one of the most beautifully composed stage pictures of the production, with the bridally – clad child singing to her father’s rigidly set form as her fond mother looked on from the curving staircase. Sadly she was not so well served as her story progressed, but more of that anon.

The ubiquitous Mark Padmore was the tormented conqueror, and he sang with his customary musicality and commitment, whilst never impressing with any great agility in the coloratura: mind you, anyone would be hard pressed to do so given that ‘Waft her, Angels’ was sung crouched over on the stairs and ‘His Mighty Arm’ had to be tackled whilst surrounded by ‘reporters’ taking notes (‘now, tell us again, just how haughty was that foe? Can we quote you on that?) Mr Padmore seems to look more like Tony Blair every day, and this production’s notion of Jephtha as a 20th century politico drew on that: making those air-cutting gestures he was given to use to denote annoyance and / or despair, you half expected him to say ‘Look, ok, wull, um. I’m a pretty straightforward kinda guy – those Ammonites, now…’ He presents a vulnerable, attractive hero who fits well into the production’s concept of him, and as the run continues his singing will surely grow in confidence.


Susan Bickley’s Storgè experienced some problems during the evening: this very fine singer, much loved by audiences for her Juno and Cassandra, was not in her best voice – ‘In gentle murmurs will I mourn’ was so subdued as to be difficult to hear, and the very taxing ‘Sweet as sight to the blind’ had singer and conductor parting company and not quite meeting up again: however, she, too, had to contend with much unnecessary fussing about.

Of the new members of the cast, Neal Davies was an efficiently blustery Zebul, although his placing on stage often rendered his pronouncements less striking than they needed to be. However, he sang his music with commitment and he was touching in his comfort to the afflicted hero, another lovely stage picture being created when he shares what he thinks is Jephtha’s joy on being greeted by Iphis. Robin Blaze displayed a lovely voice as Hamor, although I think it is a small one for this size of house, being more suited to, shall we say, ‘My Ladye’s Chamber’ than a vast auditorium, but no one could fault his articulation, his passage work or the sweetness and beauty of his tone in ‘Up the dreadful steep ascending,’ and ‘These labours past’ was pure delight, his and the soprano’s voice intertwining mellifluously despite all the superfluous stage business.

I very much liked the idea of having the Angel present throughout, especially in the form of Sarah–Jane Davies, a young singer whose bright future I confidently predicted when I saw her in many superb performances at the RCM – she sang her one aria ‘Happy, Iphis, shalt thou live’ quite beautifully, with a steady tone and shapely phrasing. Of course, how to deal with the Angel is a knotty problem for any production of this tale: Donne could write that ‘Just such disparity / As is ‘twixt Aire and Angells’ purity / Twixt women’s love, and men’s, will ever be’ and assume in his readers an acknowledging understanding that there were such things as angels, but for the 21st century audience some other accommodation must be made. However, moving and meaningful though it is to have the silent Angel hovering throughout, her moment of glory needs emphatic staging, and here it went for nothing - instead of a great central cry of ‘Rise, Jephtha, - and ye reverend priests, withhold / The slaght’rous hand’ causing wonder and amazement in the assembled crowd, we had the Angel pushing her way through and being manhandled as an intruder (!) so that her opening line was lost – instead of ‘Oh my God! An Angel! How incredible!’ the feeling was ‘Oi! Yew, Angel, move it before we chuck yer out!’ Oh dear.

Even more misguided, in my opinion, was the concept of Iphis after she has been condemned to die. Handel’s glorious music is abundantly clear as to how she reacts – and no one could possibly have been unmoved by Sarah Tynan’s truly heart-breaking singing in the lines ‘Jephtha hath triumph’d – Israel is free!’ and ‘…the blessings still / Pour on my country, friends, and dearest father’ - she is nobly, heroically stoical and self – sacrificing, and that reaction does not alter even at what she thinks is the last moment. Such a notion obviously proved too much for this director, so we had Iphis ‘going mad’ in the now-conventional stage way, complete with bare feet, aimless scratching and inturned toes; I half expected her to start babbling about Rosemary and Rue. The lines ‘…the call of heav’n with humble resignation I obey’ are not ironic, but here they were made to seem so. In the lovely aria ‘Farewell, ye limpid springs’ the music breathes serenity and poise, it radiates acceptance and fortitude - and yet the stage was frantic with scrabblings. When Iphis sings ‘All that is in Hamor mine, Freely I to heav’n resign’ the music shows that she means it. There are some concepts which may be alien to oneself, but sometimes you just need to accept them if that’s what the composer – remember him? – is telling you.

Handel opera – or staged oratorio – is centred around a structure in which the arias illuminate crises in the lives of the individuals concerned, and since those arias are mostly of a florid style, their flamboyance calculated to make vivid the nature of the crisis involved, they are best performed with minimal interference from stage business, this being one area of opera where a modified ‘stand and deliver’ is appropriate, the challenges to the director being mainly concerned with how to integrate such moments into the overall action. The characters enter, they sing of one crisis, they depart, that crisis being over. This style of production was spectacularly successful in, for example, ENO’s ‘Xerxes,’ where the singers’ needs were paramount yet the overall production was witty, original and gave that elusive sense of being a complete dramatic whole. The conductor Nicolas McGegan once remarked to me that his heart sank when he was told brightly ‘We’re having someone who has never directed opera before – won’t that be fun?’ to which his reply was ‘Well, no, in fact, it won’t – not at all’ and although Katie Mitchell has a couple of opera productions to her credit, one would hardly have known it from this evening.



I’ve already given examples of stage business interfering with singing, so I will just mention one glorious moment which went for nothing: when Hamor finds out what Jephtha has vowed, he heroically steps forward (or he should!) and says, in music of melting beauty and tenderness – ‘If such thy cruel purpose, lo! Your friend offers himself a willing sacrifice / to save the innocent and beauteous maid.’ If ever a singer needed a prominent stage position, then Robin Blaze did here, yet his plea was lost behind the trenchcoats. But how wonderfully he sang it, and the ensuing aria – happily for me I was in the front stalls, but had I been a first- time visitor in the balcony I doubt if I would have known what was going on.

The orchestral playing recovered from a rather sluggish overture to provide lively, sympathetic accompaniment, with Nicholas Kraemer’s harpsichord a fluent presence. The ENO chorus, as always, sang superbly, particularly in ‘How dark, o Lord.’ The lighting (Chris Davey and Paule Constable) was subtle and the sets (Vicki Mortimer) worked well as a backdrop to the negotiations – I especially liked the curving staircase and the trestle tables. Should you go? Of course you should: whatever qualms I have about Mitchell’s production are insignificant compared to the fact that she has staged this glorious work, and if you don’t know such music as ‘Take the heart you fondly gave,’ ‘Tune the soft melodious lute,’ ‘In glory high, in might serene’ and of course, most of all ‘Waft her, Angels, through the skies’ then you are the poorer. If you’d like to hear the work on record, there is no better recommendation than the ‘Brilliant Classics’ 99777 version, with John Mark Ainsley’s stunningly virtuosic Jephtha and Christiane Oelze’s poignantly lovely Iphis, and if you want to hear ‘His Mighty Arm’ and ‘Waft her, angels’ sung with the kind of skill and expressiveness that makes your jaw drop, then I highly recommend a visit to the Proms on Tuesday 2nd August, when Ainsley will sing those very arias from this wonderful work.

Melanie Eskenazi




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