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The beauty of Jephtha sung straight - Michael Church [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
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The beauty of Jephtha sung straight [Jun. 25th, 2009|12:20 pm]
Michael Church
Erupting in ecstatic roars after three hours of white-hot passion, a packed Barbican audience rammed home a point which conductor Paul McCreesh (left) had made before he led his army onstage. This late oratorio by Handel deserved to be performed as often as Beethoven's Ninth, he declared in a pre-performance chat. Oh yeah, one felt like saying, the usual directorial hyperbole… My only memory of Jephtha was Katie Mitchell's staging for ENO, which over-strenuously tried to make up for the fact that it wasn't meant to be staged, and thus fatally deflected attention from the music itself.

The plot closely mirrors that of Idomeneo. The Israelite leader Jephtha vows that if he is successful in battle, he will sacrifice the first living creature he encounters, which turns out to be his only child Iphis. As the knife hovers, an angel appears and announces that Iphis - who nobly hasn’t complained - will be spared if she takes a vow of perpetual virginity. The message of Thomas Morell’s sanctimonious libretto is that self-sacrifice is the means of redemption, and virginity an excellent thing: the message of the music is not so bland. Handel was going blind: the stark way he sets Pope's cold maxim - "Whatever is, is right" - suggests he was wrestling with his own fear of the impending unknown.

The work opens in sunlight, dives down to Hades, then surfaces again: bold melodies in major keys give way to contorted chromaticism and dense counterpoint, before their transfigured resolution. McCreesh had not only signed up the best tenor in the oratorio game as Jephtha - Mark Padmore (right) - but also mezzo Christianne Stotjin and soprano Mhairi Lawson as his wife and daughter, and these three singers carried all before them.

Padmore’s artistry allowed him to deliver every repeat of every aria with subtle variations in colour; the recitative in which Jephtha all but falls into madness acquired the oracular intensity of Hamlet’s "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow". The ironic juxtaposition of rejoicing and lamenting at the plot’s pivotal moment became edge-of-the-seat stuff, as dramatic as any opera - and this was a mere ‘concert performance’ at the Barbican!

Stotjin's dark art is subtler, but no less arresting; Mhairi Lawson's soaring arias were grace incarnate. And in William Docherty as the Angel we got a treble whose voice rang triumphantly out over the full chorus and orchestra - he's a "quirister" at Winchester College, where they clearly know how to train them. Trebles with this ability are very thin on the ground, so Docherty should make the most of his voice while it lasts.

Many conductors cut great lumps out of oratorios like this, claiming that the repetitions are boring: McCreesh's artistry allowed him - with his superb Gabrieli Consort plus the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir - to give us every repeat Handel wrote, without any whiff of déjà entendu. Bravo - and encore!

(Photos: Paul McCreesh by Sheila Rock, Mark Padmore by Marco Borggreve)