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