*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Opera review: Handel’s Jephtha (staged oratorio) at the Royal Opera House

by
13 November 2023

Fiona Hook reviews the Covent Garden staging of Handel’s Jephtha

© marc brenner

Brindley Sherratt as Zebul, Allan Clayton as Hamor, and Cameron Shabazi as Jephtha with the chorus in Jephtha at the Royal Opera House

Brindley Sherratt as Zebul, Allan Clayton as Hamor, and Cameron Shabazi as Jephtha with the chorus in Jephtha at the Royal Opera House

HANDEL’s last oratorio, Jephtha, written in 1751 when he was losing his sight and plagued by ill health, tells the story of the Israelite general Jephtha, who promises, in exchange for victory over the Ammonites, to sacrifice the first living thing that he sees on his return. This turns out to be his daughter Iphis.

It has become fashionable to stage oratorios. At the Royal Opera House, the director, Oliver Mears, presents Jephtha as an 18th-century culture clash between dark-clad Puritan Israelites and brightly clothed Ammonites. The massive moving grey walls of Simon Lima Holdsworth’s grim set, with their biblical inscriptions, reflect the stark shadows cast by Fabiana Piccioli’s inspired lighting, splitting briefly to reveal scenes of revelry straight out of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress.

Handel gives us few clues to his characters’ personalities. Here, Allan Clayton’s Jephtha is possessed by a hubristic sense of his own rightness as he rises from his spotlit bed in nightshirt and nightcap to pen his vow. Masterfully paced recitatives reveal his growing doubts. His final descent into madness as rebellious women strip him to his shirt comes as no surprise.

As Storgè, the general’s wife, Alice Coote lent her creamy mezzo to maternal tenderness and fear in a terrifying bedroom dream sequence full of smoke and apparitions. The countertenor Cameron Shahbazi — Hamor, Iphis’s fiancé — took some time to warm up, but was a spritely and sensitive youth, embracing his beloved with puppyish over-enthusiasm, and shocked to hysteria by blood on his hands from the heaps of enemy corpses.

Jennifer France’s Iphis passes from rapturous, affectionate girlhood, comforting her mother and receiving her fiancé’s ring with delight, to luminous and courageous acceptance of martyrdom as her duty to her country. The boy treble Ivo Clark, the angel who announces that Iphis is to live, dedicated to God’s service, sang his difficult solos perfectly in tune. The conductor, Laurence Cummings, drew light and stylish playing from his orchestra, and the chorus, taking on multiple personalities, were excellent throughout.

There are some nasty moments, intended to suggest that perhaps the Israelites don’t quite have the moral high ground they suppose. There’s a Bonfire of the Vanities, destroying beautiful objects for no reason. The sacrifice is to be burnt on a pyre of benches. Jephtha indicates a woman in the congregation. Two men drag her away, to be applauded on their return. In a strangely prescient touch, the Ammonites are slaughtered while happily dancing.

The ending is rather odd. Iphis, throwing off her robes, skips joyously away with her betrothed, and the chorus marches down the aisles singing “Ye House of Gilead” in robust rugby-club tones, as sheets of paper rain from the ceiling. Jephtha’s mighty vow is now so much toilet paper.

Jephtha runs at the Royal Opera House, Bow Street, London WC2, until 24 November. Phone 020 7304 4000. www.roh.org.uk

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)