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Music review: Jephte by Giacomo Carissimi (Il Pomo d’Oro, Barbican Hall)

01 March 2024

Fiona Hook attends Carissimi’s Jephte


GIACOMO CARISSIMI’s oratorio Jephte, written in about 1649, tells the poignant story of the Israelite general who promises God that, in exchange for victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first living creature he sees on his return, only to be met by his virgin daughter, his only child.

It is a compelling piece, pioneering devices that would become the hallmark of the oratorio form. It adopts Monteverdi’s opera technique of recitative and arioso, solo declamation with a bass accompaniment mixed with madrigal-like writing for chorus. The story is unfolded by a Narrator, a role that shifts between three voices and small groups, while the innocent Figlia sings hymns of joy and dialogues with her father, working towards the piece’s emotional high point, her lament and the final chorus, “Plorate Filii Israel”, then, as now, the composer’s most famous work.

The anonymous librettist adapted the Vulgate text of the book of Judges, with which the highly cultivated listeners in Rome’s Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso would have been familiar, and brings the narrative alive with dramatic additions, such as the lively depiction of the battle, “Et clangebant tubae”.

Despite the size of a sold-out Barbican Hall, Il Pomo d’Oro’s virtuoso Baroque orchestra and choir under Maxim Emelyanychev’s sensitive direction brought great intimacy and immediacy to the story, with their softly glowing gut string sound, and warm Italian vowels. It is a piece of many and rapidly changing moods, all captured perfectly.

Carlotta Colombo’s radiant Figlia, her victory words repeated by a chorus of maidens filled to the brim with girlish glee, passed from innocent joy to noble acceptance. In biblical times, all Hebrew women wished to bear children, in the hope that one might be the Messiah; and she will die in shame, because she is childless. Her lament for her virgin state, with its echoes from the choir, was heart-wrenching, as was the choir’s quiet, heartfelt closing repetition. Equally poignant was Andrew Staples’s warm tenor Jephte, the full horror of his vow dawning on him as he dialogued with his beloved daughter.

Oratorio was the only musical form allowed during Lent, and Carissimi subtly changes the focus of the story from the grim fairytale of a man who was careless about what he wished for. The texts repeat the word unigenita (only begotten) nine times: a timely reminder to the audience of another spotless Only Begotten, another innocent sacrificed, for the good of his people.

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