The story of Jephtha is, as the Handel scholar Ruth Smith points out, taken from the oldest account of the fight for possession of land in the Middle East. While that adds more than a frisson in the light of recent events, Oliver Mears’ new production at the Royal Opera House was conceived long before the present conflict and wisely makes no reference to it.
It’s nevertheless a powerful indictment of religious zealotry and the murderous evils that stem from it. The biblical story tells of the Israelite leader whose hubris causes him to vow to sacrifice the first living thing he sees on returning home, should he be granted victory. As in the Greek legend of Iphigenia (referenced by Handel’s librettist Thomas Morell), it’s the hero’s daughter who has to pay the price.
Mears represents Jephtha as the most extreme fundamentalist of a pious, puritanical community, shocked by the libertinism of their Ammonite foes. Simon Lima Holdsworth’s design, along with closely integrated lighting of Fabiana Picciolo and costumes by Ilona Karas, references Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress. Elsewhere Holdsworth’s monumental black and white sets are indebted to the oppressive sculptures of the American artist Richard Serra.
Jephtha is portrayed here, by a hirsute Allan Clayton, as an arrogant hypocrite with a penchant for violence. It’s little surprise that he’s deaf to the pleas of others and would rather sacrifice his daughter than the moral high ground.
Thanks to the intervention of an Angel, however – impressively sung by the treble Ivo Clark – his daughter Iphis’s death sentence (a stake is prepared) can be commuted provided she lives out her life in a “pure angelic virgin-state”. Here she’s not just packed off to a nunnery but seized by the puritanical mob in a way reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s handmaids (according to the Book of Judges, Jephtha also hailed from Gilead, by the way). Her fiancé Hamor is none too pleased.
I won’t reveal how Iphis and Hamor deal with the threat of her patriarchally enforced virginity, nor how Jephtha gets his comeuppance, but this plea for tolerance lifts the spirits, while remaining faithful to Handel’s profound humanity, if less so to Morell’s text.
There’s much to admire on the musical side, but even under the direction of the period-instrument specialist Laurence Cummings, the otherwise excellent musicians of the Royal Opera orchestra and chorus lack both the precision and the flexibility of phrasing of the true Baroque style.
Clayton is totally convincing as the morally compromised Jephtha, often moving too. But the big roles like Peter Grimes towards which he has gravitated have taken their toll on his Handelian credentials. Much the same can be said of Alice Coote’s Storgè (Jephtha’s long-suffering wife).
Both are capable of wonderful things but the tone spreads and coarsens under pressure. Brindley Sherratt, though now an accomplished Wagnerian, is far more successful as Zebul. But it is Jennifer France as Iphis and the countertenor Cameron Shahbazi as her sorely tested lover Hamor that offer the most stylish Handel singing.
The work is replete with glorious music and the production team present it in an intriguing new light. Highly recommended to all but zealots and puritans.