Jephtha is Handel’s last oratorio. It ended a long stream of compositions in this genre. The reception for his oratorios was mixed: in the late 1740s Judas Maccabaeus, Joshua, Susanna and Solomon were greeted with enthusiasm, but Belshazzar and Theodora were received with indifference. Handel started to compose Jephtha in December 1750. During the compositional process his health deteriorated as a stroke caused blindness of his left eye. This meant that he needed more time than usual to finish the work.
Handel started to compose oratorios when the audiences had had their fill of Italian operas. In his hands the oratorio developed into the sacred counterpart of Italian opera. Most of them are operas in all but name. The main differences are the use of the vernacular, the lack of staging and the prominence of the choir. Although the subjects were sacred and based on biblical stories, the libretti contained many elements which were the product of the librettist’s fantasy. In Jephtha the clergyman Thomas Morell provided the words. He had a perfect sense of the requirements of a musical drama. That inspired him to write a libretto which keeps the thread of the biblical story of Jephtha intact, but builds in a number of elements which are not taken from the Bible. The story is based on Judges 11 which tells of Jephtha leading the Jewish people in the war against the Ammonites. He promises God that if he is victorious, he will sacrifice the first creature he meets on his return. To his horror it is his daughter Iphis who greets him. The desperation of all people involved - with the exception of Iphis herself - is expressed in the second act, ending with the dramatic chorus 'How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees!' In the third act the sacrifice is prepared, until an angel intervenes. Instead of being sacrificed, Iphis has to devote her entire life to God.
The libretto by Morell is based on the Latin tragedy Jephte sive votum by George Buchanan (1554). In this piece the number of characters was increased. Whereas the biblical story only mentions Jephtha and his daughter, Morell's libretto has roles for his wife (Storgè), his brother (Zebul), his daughter's lover (Hamor) and an angel. Moreover the daughter - who has no name in the Bible - is called Iphis. In the portrayal of the various characters Morell made use of a classical tragedy: Iphigenie in Aulis by Euripides. All the protagonists have an aria in the first act which gives the opportunity to depict their respective characters. The choir in Handel's dramatic oratorios doesn't comment or reflect as a bystander but takes a decisive role. Here it is predominantly the chorus of the Israelites, whereas in act 3 it once assumes the role of the chorus of priests.
It is not common practice these days to perform the great oratorios of the baroque era with modern instruments. If one has the sound of period instruments in one's ear one needs to readjust to appreciate a performance with a modern symphony orchestra. Fabio Biondi has done a great job in translating historical performance practice to the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. The phrasing and articulation and the treatment of dynamics are quite stylish and the strings largely avoid vibrato. Still, this performance once again shows the limits of modern instruments in the interpretation of baroque music. I often missed depth and colour. Moreover, a baroque-style articulation on modern instruments sounds rather unnatural. It is also inevitable that dynamic contrasts are moderate, as a full exploration of the dynamic capabilities of modern instruments would cause problems to the singers and would violate the character of the music.
The cast is pretty good overall. Mona Julsrud is particularly impressive as Iphis. She explores the contrasting feelings of her character very well. 'Farewell, ye limpid springs' (Act 3) is wonderfully sung. The role of Jephtha is nicely suited to James Gilchrist, who gives a good account of his character's devastation when he realises that he has to sacrifice his daughter. It is just a shame that his incessant vibrato spoils enjoyment. That is also a problem with Elisabeth Jansson as Storgè, for instance in 'Sweet as sight to the blind' (Act 3). She is too restrained in her accompagnato 'First perish thou' (Act 2). Marianne Beate Kielland has by far the most beautiful voice of all the ladies in the cast. She uses it well in her performance of the rather sweet role of Hamor. HÅvard Stensvold gives a good account of Zebul, whereas Elisabeth Rapp convinces as the Angel. As far as I can tell the English pronunciation is quite good, but in some recitatives the diction could have been better. That is probably due to the fact that only Gilchrist is a native English speaker. No wonder his diction is immaculate.
The Collegium vocale Gent hardly needs any praise as it is one of the world's leading vocal ensembles in early music. Its transparency and agility are impressive as always, and these qualities are very opportune here. The famous chorus 'How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees' is marvellously sung.
Despite some critical remarks this is a rather good performance. Even so I doubt whether it is real competition for recordings which are already on the market. There are two reasons: the first is the use of modern instruments, the second that the most dramatic parts are too restrained. My favourite recording so far is the one in which Marcus Creed conducts the RIAS Kammerchor and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (1992, Berlin Classics; later reissued by Brilliant Classics). This recording by Fabio Biondi give me no reason to change my mind.
Johan van Veen