Quick, name a Handel oratorio besides Messiah. . . . Not that easy, is it?
They aren’t exactly common fare, and I’m willing to bet that few of you would have come up with Jephtha, especially if Harry Christophers and the good folks at the Handel and Haydn Society (aka “H&H”) hadn’t decided to resurrect it and bring it with them on their first California tour since 1996. The Bostonian performing arts organization had given its U.S. premiere way back in 1855, but haven’t taken it off the shelf since 1867.
Given H&H’s pedigree with this rarity, I made my way to Walt Disney Concert Hall to see what they’d do with it and whether this late Handel work deserved to be kept in the dark as much as it has been. Despite an excellent effort by the whole crew under Mr. Christophers’ impressive leadership, I understand why Jephtha isn’t lighting up concert stages on a more regular basis.
For starters, there aren’t any truly memorable moments. Sure, there are loads of pretty melodies and impressively technical vocal runs, but there is no equivalent of songs like Samson‘s “Let the bright seraphim” or “Arm, arm ye brave” from Judas Maccabeus that stick in your head whether you want them to or not.
More importantly, it has at its center an extended section of rather dark music. This is appropriate enough to the plot taken from the Hebrew Bible: the title character, having promised to sacrifice the first living creature he sees as thanks to the Almighty for having aided him in battle, finds himself in the unfortunate position of having to murder his daughter just because she had rushed out to welcome him home and saw him before anyone or anything else. Unfortunately, for too long there is little variance away from the brooding mood, the drama gets old, and the work stagnates. Despite the ultimately happy ending, this drawn-out middle makes the whole oratorio feel tiring.
Handel didn’t always write with such a one-track mind. Compare it to the much more famous Part 2 of Messiah recounting Jesus’s passion and crucifixion: despite the unpleasant and unhappy subject of that section, the airs, recitatives, and choruses show great emotional range, from the anguish of “He was despised” and “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart,” to the defiant anger of “He trusted in God,” and even the bouncy cheeriness of “All we like sheep” and “Lift up your heads, O ye gates.” This breadth of emotion during the bleakest moments is missing in Jephtha.
You can’t fault the performers. Mr. Christophers conducted with great energy and intensity, with an interpretation that was emotional while remaining transparent and avoided extremes in tempi or dynamics. The H&H orchestra and chorus responded with faultless musicianship.
Among the soloists, Joélle Harvey was easily the vocal stand-out as Jephtha’s daughter, Iphis. Her bright, robust voice soared effortlessly in grand moments, while she showed a wonderfully light touch in “Tune the soft melodious lute.”
Robert Murray was earnest in the title role, his voice gaining additional bloom in the second half. He sang with palpable anguish as Jephtha pondered having to keep his unfortunate vow to God, with “Waft her, angels” sounding particularly tender.
The rest of the cast was solid. William Purefoy’s singing was as pleasant as you could expect from a countertenor, his voice thankfully absent the annoying nasal ping present in most others; Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a noble Storgè; H&H choristers Woodrow Bynum and Teresa Wakim stepped out front to do fine work in their supporting roles.
In the end, the H&H performers’ collective contributions made for a rewarding night of music. I’m grateful that this fine ensemble resurrected Jephtha and gave it such an impassioned performance. While I won’t be clamoring to see or hear this particular Handel rarity again anytime soon, I look forward to the next chance I’ll have to experience an H&H performance.
“Baroque Variations” presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: April 30, 2013; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Handel and Haydn Society
Harry Christophers, conductor & artistic director
Robert Murray, (Jephtha) tenor
Catherine Wyn-Rogers, (Storgè) mezzo-soprano
Joélle Harvey, (Iphis) soprano
William Purefoy, (Hamor) countertenor
Woodrow Bynum, (Zebul) baritone
Teresa Wakim, (Angel) soprano
Handel: Jephtha (complete oratorio)
- Handel and Haydn Society: H&H Facebook page
- Joélle Harvey: photo by Arielle Doneson