As Handel wrote Jephtha‘s haunting central chorus, “How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees,” his own sight temporarily failed him, and he had to break off work. Although he would live for another eight years, Jephtha would prove to be Handel’s last oratorio: a disturbing story from the eleventh chapter of the Book of Judges, in which the Lord’s ways prove dark indeed. Jephtha, notorious for his military prowess and feared by many Israelites, is persuaded back into the fold of the community to lead them in a final battle against their enemies the Ammonites; he promises God he will sacrifice whatever is first to greet him on his return from battle if he is victorious, and tragically that proves to be his own, unnamed, daughter.
In the Bible, Jephtha does indeed kill his daughter as he feels God commands, a pledge of faith almost impossible to comprehend, and still a subject of ritual mourning by some Jewish women to this day. However, Handel used Rev. Thomas Morell’s libretto, in which an angel intervenes to ensure Jephtha’s daughter is instead ordained to a life of perpetual virginity: Iphis, perhaps so named to remind us of both Euripides’ versions of the Iphigenia myth*, becomes a living sacrifice to God, rather than a dead one. Handel’s Jephtha, accordingly, moves from the bloody determination of war to a rarefied spiritual resolution which eventually frustrates both Jephtha’s fatal vow, and his daughter’s brave resolution of martyrdom; as happy endings go, it’s an exceptionally difficult one to psychologically justify, let alone stage.
Fortunately, director Timothy Nelson sets Jephtha in a latter-day fundamentalist Christian sect, a brilliant decision which immediately explains both the religious violence central to Jephtha’s plot, and the chilling zeal which makes Jephtha’s vow potentially lethal. As a bewildering counterweight to the humanist triumph of Messiah, Jephtha is fascinating. Nelson’s vision embraces both the mysterious possibilities of faith, and the potential horror of its consequences. Recalling cults like the Branch Davidians, responsible for the Waco siege (which eventually killed 76 people, recently analysed on Radio 4), Nelson’s Christian warriors are handwringing social misfits with a terrifying arsenal of guns, bullets and unshakeable religious conviction bordering on mass delusion. And it works every angle of this menacing oratorio to hair-raising effect. Even joy is dangerous in this world; victory can lead to disaster, love to murder, all seemingly countenanced by an omnipotent, uncritical God.
Rachel Szmukler‘s design focuses our attention on the ecclesiastical qualities of Iford’s delicate cloister, bringing in stained glass windows which cult members smash as examples of idolatry, later picking up scattered shards to cut themselves in religious ecstasy. The action centres around the group’s weapons cache, a simple wooden structure over the cloister’s central well. While the broken windows may be allegories of the cult’s vicious perversion of a beneficent faith, these coloured glass shards become ever more important to the action, Jephtha finally blinding himself with them before the dreadful dawn of his daughter’s execution. Some windows show angels in violent situations: whether they are intervening, or encouraging proceedings, is unclear, and Nelson brings a similar ambiguity to his eventual angel, here a young, mentally ill cult member (portrayed acutely by the gifted young soprano Charlotte Le Thrope) who suffers from fits, speaks as if divinely possessed, but undoubtedly wants Iphis’ lover, Hamor, for herself. Thus, the “angel’s rescue” of Iphis may simply be the result of selfish determination to permanently remove a sexual rival; the Lord’s decrees are by now so dark that, tantalisingly, he may not be here at all.
Contraband, conducted from the harpsichord by Christopher Bucknall, produce a fervent, accurate and above all heartfelt account of Handel’s score, which thrills with pain and tension. Christopher Turner gives a performance of exceptional passion as Jephtha, the powerful man ironically destroyed by his own prowess. Turner’s lyrical, powerfully expressive tenor takes naturally to Handel’s phrasing and ornamentation, bringing us into his terrible dilemma with real human detail. Frederick Long‘s wonderfully assured and fixedly unhinged Zebul, erstwhile leader of the Israelites and here chief cult creep par excellence, comes across vividly thanks to Long’s gloriously smooth, strong baritone as well as his faultless dramatic instinct.
Benjamin Williamson‘s lusciously sweet countertenor and deft characterisation is ideal for Hamor, a weak man whose initial impulses to action are too easily overwhelmed by the force of community will. Lucy Page makes a defiantly girlish, innocent Iphis who ends as the most broken of all, appalled both by the reversal of her fate and the sudden, unquestioning acceptance by all around her of the “angel’s” counsel. As her mother Storgé, Marianne Vidal’s performance has great dramatic and musical presence, only slightly marred by some occasionally cloudy articulation. The accuracy, beauty and tension of the choral moments are, throughout, astounding, particularly given Nelson’s dynamic group choreography, which includes trance-like dances, a combination of self-harm and the many postures of prayer. After the final climax, it took the audience several seconds to recover sufficiently to applaud: a fitting tribute to Jephtha’s dark power.
Rating: 5 stars
* In Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia is brought to Aulis under the false pretence that she is to be married to Achilles, but in fact, Artemis has demanded that she be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon so that the Greek army can have a favourable wind to take them to Troy. Confronted by the truth, Iphigenia becomes a willing sacrifice, dying for the honour and glory of Greece in an empowered, conscious martyrdom. In Iphigenia in Tauris, Iphigenia is suddenly whisked away from the sacrificial altar at Aulis at the last minute by Artemis, who instead transports her to her temple at Tauris, where she is forced to become a priestess, tasked (to her horror) with carrying out the human sacrifice of all foreigners who reach her shore. One day, years after the Trojan War, two new foreigners reach Tauris: Iphigenia’s brother Orestes, with his friend Pylades. Not knowing who they are, Iphigenia prepares to sacrifice them, but fortunately they all realise their mutual identities in time, and eventually escape Tauris together. Athena sanctions their escape, and finally claims Iphigenia to be her priestess at Brauron.