Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jephtha resurrected at Handel and Haydn

Harry Christophers leads Jephtha in Disney Hall. Photo: Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles Times.

I'm late with an appreciation of Handel and Haydn's stunning performance of Jephtha, Handel's final oratorio (and one of his greatest). I heard it over a week ago, in fact; but frankly, its impact still lingers.  Indeed, in some ways this Jephtha may have been the finest hour of artistic director Harry Christopher's already-remarkable tenure; it was a model of internalized tragic emotion expressed with exquisite musical poise.  And certainly it marked the most impressive roster of soloists I have yet seen grace the Society's stage - at last they have the people up front to match the people in back, i.e., their by-now-legendary chorus. This version also hinted at the overwhelming importance of rehearsal time - and, actually, performance time; Boston heard Jephtha only after it had toured the West Coast (including a touchdown at Disney Hall, above), and the consequent coherence and depth of the Society's interpretation was noted by many.

Certainly Jephtha deserves the extra attention. It has largely slipped from the active repertory (the Society itself hadn't performed it since 1867!), I suppose because it boasts only a few show-stoppers (although at least one aria, the ravishing "Waft her, angels, thro' the skies" is often heard in recitals, and others should be).  The oratorio makes up for its lack of superficial fireworks, however, in subtlety, dramatic insight, and (for lack of a better word) sheer profundity.  It tells the story of the Old Testament hero Jephtha (although the story is an archetypal one, and appears in many cultures), who rashly promises Yahweh that if he prevails in battle, he will sacrifice the first thing to meet his eyes upon his return.  That thing, of course, turns out to be his only daughter, the beloved Iphis.

Hence submission to the cruel demands of inscrutable Fate (be it of Jewish, Christian, or any other persuasion) forms the terrible crux of Jephtha.  And in an added twist of musical fate, Handel himself was struck down by affliction during its composition - his vision began to fail due to a botched cataract operation, and his original manuscript bears testament to a long pause after the completion of "How dark, o Lord, are thy decrees"(ironically enough) with the heartbreaking note, in the master's handwriting, "Unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye."

Handel did, however, eventually complete the score - and even conducted its premiere in Covent Garden.  Perhaps an angel intervened, as one does in the Jephtha libretto (by Rev. Thomas Morrell), which deviates from the Old Testament in explicitly granting poor Iphis a reprieve from death, if she dedicates her virginity to God.

Joélle Harvey, a talent to watch
Perhaps it should have been unsurprising, then, that the "find" of the concert turned out to be its Iphis, Joélle Harvey (right), a young soprano who is undoubtedly on the cusp of a major career (indeed, H&H has already signed her for a return engagement next year).  Ms. Harvey's tone is of  almost unbelievably luminous purity - a good thing, too, as many of her arias are utterly exposed - and even at the top of her register she can waft a vocal line thro' the skies at something close to a whisper.  Ms. Harvey also proved a subtle dramatic actress, and was able to convincingly convey both her love for her betrothed, Hamon, and her contradictory willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of Israel.  Hers was a performance to remember.

Only a small step behind was mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Storgè, Iphis' mother, who skillfully hinted at sorrowful portents early on, and then was absolutely riveting as she desperately begged for her daughter's life (Wyn-Rogers is also coming back next season, I'm happy to report).  Meanwhile, in the title role, tenor Robert Murray was less commanding, oddly, than his wife or daughter, but his Jephtha, though perhaps an unconvincing warrior, nevertheless grew on me as the character's psychological torment increased. Indeed, Mr. Murray's almost-intellectual interpretation proved, in the end, quite harrowing; particularly in the famous recitative "Deeper, and deeper still . . .," his insights into the role mapped well to the sense of introversion latent in the score (which perhaps in turn maps to Handel's own private struggles).

There was still more good news in the supporting roles.  As Iphis' betrothed, Hamor, countertenor William Purefoy proved exquisitely matched to Harvey in their duets, while baritone Woodrow Bynum stepped down from his usual place in the chorus to sing with startling authority as Jepththa's brother Zebul. The reliable Teresa Wakim, another mainstay of the chorale, likewise impressed as the angel who spares Iphis' life. Together these two give some idea of the talent on tap these days in the H&H chorus, which sang - as they always do - with remarkable clarity, utter commitment, and superbly sensitive dynamics. Indeed, now they seem able to communicate complicated moods in a way few choruses can - their reading of the poignant phrase, "Whatever is, is right," for instance, seemed to encompass every interpretation of the line: its frustration and pain seemed locked in a search for triumph through acquiescence, which is precisely the right idea.

Conductor Christophers has a lot to do with all of this, of course - he's a positive genius at sublimating intense emotion within graceful rhetoric (a peculiarly British talent, if you ask me), which makes him perhaps the ideal conductor of Handel.  His Jephtha (which he had carefully edited, btw) seemed perfectly poised between several artistic poles: at times it nodded toward the drama of opera; at others, toward the rhetoric of oratorio - and at still others, toward the private world of internal dialogue.  That Christophers kept these many oppositions in balance, and in organic harmony, was remarkable.  As was the playing of the H&H period instrument orchestra, which has rarely sounded so vibrant or responsive.  The performance was memorable enough that many around me were openly wondering whether this version was to be recorded.  If there are no such plans, there should be; this could be close to a definitive Jephtha.

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