'Jephtha' was Handel's last major work. At one
point he had to suspend work on it due to problems with his eyes,
eventually losing the sight in one eye altogether. By the following
year he was too blind to work properly and 'Jephtha' was followed
only by the 'Triumph of Truth and Time', an adaptation by Handel
and his amanuensis, Smith, of a work from Handel's Italian period.
The libretto to 'Jephtha' was written by the
Rev. Thomas Morrell, who also wrote 'Theodora' for Handel. It
is based on the story from Judges where Jephtha. commanding the
Israeli army, vows to God that if he gets a victory he will offer
the first living thing he meets as a sacrifice to God. After his
victory, the first thing he meets is his daughter. Morrell developed
a pretty serviceable libretto from this story. Creating the role
of Storge, Jephtha's wife, so that she is the only person to have
doubts about Jephtha's vow. Jephtha's daughter, Iphis, acquires
a boyfriend and their devotion forms a counterpoint to Jephtha's
vow, rendering it all the more poignant. The major change that
Morrell made was to the ending. In the biblical version, Iphis
is given a few months grace and then she is sacrificed. This was
too much for the 18th century enlightenment, who preferred
the New Testament God. So Iphis is spared at the last minute by
an Angel, though she must spend the rest of her life in a convent.
Much ink has been spilt, denigrating Morrell for this change.
But, as his correspondence with Charles Jennens (librettist for
'Messiah', 'Belshazzar' and 'Saul') shows, Handel was perfectly
capable directing a librettist. We must assume that Handel was
reasonably content with the altered ending. Perhaps because the
ending was not the key to his dramatic conception of 'Jephtha'
and we must look at Handel’s private circumstances at the time
of composition if we wish to understand how Handel viewed ‘Jephtha’.
The score was begun just before his 66th
birthday - a considerable age in the 18th century and
few composers were still actively working at this age (Bach had
died the year before). With his sight failing he must have known
that he had only a limited time left to put pen to paper. So not
surprisingly, Handel does not develop 'Jephtha' in the way that
might have been expected given Morrell's libretto. The crux of
Handel's oratorio is submission to the inevitable. From the bold
setting of the opening recitative 'It must be so' to the closing
chorus of Act 2 with its words (altered by Handel from Morrell's
original) 'Whatever is, is right'.
Despite its power, 'Jephtha' is still not common
in the catalogues so these Berlin-based performances are more
than welcome. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under Marcus
Creed, give a crisp stylish account of the overture which typifies
their approach to the whole work. Speeds are, on the whole, quite
brisk but some of the faster passages in the overture sound a
Michael George, as Zebul, is fine Handelian singer
and his Zebul is a noble performance. It is therefore a shame
to have to say that his voice does sound a little frayed at the
edges but it is used with such style that he creates a credible
rough diamond of a leader.
Catherine Denly's Storge is capable and firm
of voice. So it is all the more moving when she gives way to her
fears in the great Act 1 aria and in Act 2 she is wonderfully
virulent in her reaction to Jephtha's vow.
As Iphis, Christiane Oelze sings with strength
and purity. Good women in oratorios can often seem a little flat
and colourless but Oelze sings with such colour and vibrancy that
suggest hidden depths and strengths in Iphis. She reacts with
poise and strength to the news of Jephtha's vow.
The role of Hamar is a tricky role as he is there
mainly to render Iphis's fate all the more poignant. I am afraid
that I do not think that Axel Köhler fills the role adequately.
Technically he has no problem with Handel's writing, but his voice
is not always lovely to listen to, it develops something of a
hoot and there are occasional suggestions that the tessitura might
be a little to high. His performance of Hamar's Act II aria is
distinctly untidy. Then there is the issue of language. Unlike
Christiane Oelze, whose grasp of English is beautifully idiomatic,
Köhler noticeably makes you feel that he is singing in a
During Act 1, John Mark Ainsley as Jephtha is
every inch the noble commander. His fluency in the passage work
is enviable and his way of using the Handelian line to create
character is lovely. He does, though, sound a little young. This
is fine. After all, it makes Jephtha sound impulsive, but does
mean that Storge sounds significantly older than him. In Act 2,
when Jephtha digests the consequences of his vow, Ainsley's very
fluency counts against him and the role seems to lack an element
of struggle. But when we reach Act 3, 'Waft her Angels' receives
a heartbreaking performance.
The RIAS Chamber Choir have a prominent role
in the performance as Handel allots the chorus some important
moments of comment on the proceedings. They sing with a clear,
focused tone and in the bigger choruses, such as that which closes
Act 1 'When his loud voice in thunder spoke', they sound admirably
full whilst never coming over as overblown or oversized. In the
smaller choruses, such as the women's chorus at the beginning
of Act 2, they provide a gently intimate tone. Their performance
would be ideal were it not for the fact that they fail to make
enough of the words. This is not a fault of their accent, they
are after all singing in a foreign language but it rarely sounds
as such. In oratorio words are, unfortunately, very important
- there is no stage action. It may be that the fault is not entirely
with the choir but also with the recording engineers. But the
result is an occluded delivery which weakens a fine performance.
The pre-eminent recording of 'Jephtha' remains
John Eliot Gardiner's 1988 recording with Nigel Robson, Ann Sofie
von Otter, Michael Chance and Lynne Dawson. Unlike Creed who as
a conductor seems to be content to just let things happen, Gardiner
is an interventionist conductor, far more responsive to the needs
of the drama. Though Creed's soloists (except for Axel Köhler)
are generally on a par with Gardiner's. Gardiner's dramatic reading
of the work helps his soloists give far more dramatically intense
readings. It helps that Nigel Robson in the title role has a voice
which can be steely and heroic and he uses this to great effect.
Just comparing Jephtha's recitative 'Open thy marble jaws, o Tomb'
is instructive. Ainsley's performance is finely sung but Robson's
is moving and dramatically credible. But Creed's recording was
made nearly 10 years ago in 1994 and I am sure that John Mark
Ainsley will wish to re-record the role after his performance
has deepened with experience.
Any Handelian will wish to have John Eliot Gardiner's
recording, if they haven't got it already. But this new recording,
at super budget price, allows us to appreciate a new team of soloists.
And for those who do not know this moving work, this new recording
is a good place to start exploring.