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Handel Jephtha ENO May 25 2005

Mark Padmore (Jephtha), Sarah Tynan (Iphis), Susan Bickley (Storge), Neal Davies (Zebul), Robin Blaze (Hamor), Sarah-Jane Davies (Angel)

ENO Chorus and Orchestra/Nicholas Kraemer

Katie Mitchell (director)
Struan Leslie (movement director)
Vicki Mortimer (Designer)
Wendy Ebsworth (sign interpreter)


This innovative co-production with WNO of a Handel oratorio has arrived in London two years on. Fairly well attended, its impact was muted on revisiting at The Coliseum, a larger, more difficult house for audibility than Oxford's Apollo Theatre, and we found ourselves in a more detached and critical mood. Arriving a little late because of the Jubilee Line's limping sluggishness, we were ensconced in Box Q, great for sight and sound, and ideal for relishing the best actress on stage, Wendy Ebsworth, who mouthed and mimed extravagantly every repetition of every word, so that hard-of-hearing opera lovers might miss nothing.

The text was included in the programme book, packed with fascinating historico-political essays, but the libretto is a mish-mash, and on rehearing and reconsidering the busy show (everyone relentlessly rushing around and up and down a grand stairway to nowhere in particular) wicked thoughts intruded during yet another da capo.

What voyeuristic sado-masochistic motivation is behind Katie Mitchell's pièce de résistance, the protracted scene of Iphis's humiliation? Sarah Tynan's acceptance of necessary and worthy death for the common good cracks, so that she becomes a writhing, struggling shell of the girl she was, cuddled, blindfolded and trussed head & foot by her unspeakably sententious Dad, who keeps urging his executioners to get it over, whilst she continues incongruously singing gloriously about brighter scenes above in the realms of peace and love........

No particular improvements in the London cast. Mark Padmore (the Evangelist in ENO's staging of the St John Passion) was in good form, renewing his characterisation of an unlikely hero; Susan Bickley (who had my sympathy for spurning her husband at the end) seemed a little out of voice. Sarah Tynan had improved her difficult impersonation of God's pawn in the affairs of men, woman born to be victim; the star of the show. Sarah-Jane Davies, the winged Angel brought onto stage frequently to enlarge her part (q.v. Claire Booth in GSMD's Susanna, 'a silent but involved onlooker throughout the first two Acts, revealing herself as Daniel at the climax, to take centre stage in the drama') made little of her single cheerful aria, which brings about a very questionable happy ending - I declare an interest; my small son made a notable impression as Iphis's redeeming Angel in the first recording of Jephtha.

Is Jephtha really such a 'sacred drama' or 'sublime final oratorio' (ORL), and is Katie Mitchell celebrating Handel or using him as a clothes-horse for a timely subversion of the whole religiose farrago? Can we look forward to her staging a well selected group of Bach's cantatas and demolishing their holiness which has conned generations of the faithful into acceptance of the insufferable realities of impoverished lives? Two complete sets of the cantatas (Japanese and English) are currently vying for record collectors' cash. During Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage bass soloist Dietrich Henschel, who 'strode purposively to climb into the pulpit and deliver a harrowing contemplation of a thousand million years with all the demons', felt that in these concerts 'the dichotomy between the spiritual and the operatic vanished; they became real services'.

Whatever view is taken of this Sacred Drama and my irreligious reflections upon it (numerous contradictory reviews of its premiere and this revival are collected on The Opera Critic), this was an absorbing theatrical entertainment, and the marshalling of the chorus (Struan Leslie - movement) and the management of sets and lighting were impeccable and to the credit of all concerned in this controversial show; it merits a DVD. Meanwhile, for a good, straight concert performance of Jephtha, with 'authentic' period instruments, q.v. our reviews of the Maulbronn series of live Handel oratorio recordings.

Handel: Jephtha WNO, Apollo Theatre Oxford 4 July 2003

Mark Padmore (Jephtha)
Christopher Purves (Zebul)
Susan Bickley (Storge)
Sarah Tynan (Iphis)
Daniel Taylor (Hamor)
Charlotte Ellett (Angel)
Katie Mitchell (director)
Vicki Mortimer (design)
Struan Leslie (movement)
Chris Davey (lighting)
WNO Orchestra and Chorus Paul McCreesh (conductor)

Handel's oratorios provide a rich quarry for thoughtful theatrical production. This is a vindication for their staging, equally revelatory as the Guildhall SMD's Susanna and, by all accounts, the Early Opera Company's very different staging of the same work, now touring UK. It does not - cannot - quite make Jephtha into an 'opera'.

Kate Mitchell's production for WNO of Jephtha, seen at Oxford 's Apollo Theatre, where operas always sound good, exemplifies the great ingenuity needed to turn to advantage the inherent problems posed here, these to do with pacing and with the important role of the chorus. Morrell's libretto for Jephtha brings together elements of familiar myth about Abraham and Isaac, Idomeneo and Idamante, Iphis close to Iphigenia, all brought out in a series of fascinating and genuinely illuminating essays in the programme (none are worthier of permanent places in your library than WNO's pocket-size booklets, this one complete with libretto).

Whereas Idomeneo at Glyndebourne may be depicted struggling onto the seashore only to confront his son on the beach, Handel's victorious Jephtha here meets his daughter coming down the stairs to greet him in a fully populated government centre and has to confront the significance of his rash vow in public. But suspension of disbelief has always been part and parcel of opera, so this is no great hurdle for the audience.

There are many paradoxes in the story line, summarised well by Helen Elsom in one of her always thorough & analytic reviews in ConcertoNet, which I commend. Here, I want to stress the amazing recent development of movement in opera, stand-&-deliver nearly a thing of the past, the chorus comprising individuals who react in so many ways, producing thereby a vibrant, living picture - one viewing is insufficient to take in all the ideas suggested. That it was going to be special was apparent from the first moments, in which we happen upon the Zebul (Christopher Purves) in discussion of political options for the state - he urges the return of the exiled Jephtha who strikes a deal and ultimately takes on the reins of government, but only after his rash literalness in pursuing what he conceives to be his obligation is thwarted by the Angel, who has been in attendance throughout in this conception.

In normal oratorio performance, Zebul is a less than enthralling character; and so it goes on for the whole cast, with singing and orchestral support to match the acting, lighting and marvellous chorus work. There is so much detail to admire, which must have required a great deal of coordination in preparation by Kate Mitchell and her collaborators - especially Struan Leslie to single out one of them.

Pictures Neil Libbert

© Peter Grahame Woolf