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Oratorio to opera

REX HARLEY raises some questions about the staged version of Handel's 'Jephtha'


During the first interval of Welsh National Opera's Jephtha, I heard a well known critic expatiate to his companion; 'Of course, it's a great oratorio but I've seen nothing so far to justify staging it.' Was this, I wondered, just the negative pontificating of a jaded viewer, or did he have a point? And, more disconcerting, was I wildly adrift in my own conviction that what we'd seen in Act I was a piece of musical drama at least as effective as any Grand Opera?

Well, whether it worked or not, what exactly is the point of taking Handel's oratorio off the concert platform and offering it up as a fully-fledged opera? Presumably, because the original is inherently dramatic, a director's intention is to translate the drama of the language into a coherent visual presentation; to liberate the central characters from stasis into dynamism; and to draw the audience into their predicament by the greater degree of empathy which a complete theatrical experience allows.

By the end of Act One, we had been introduced to all the protagonists: Zebul, the pragmatic brother of Jephtha, who persuades his fellow Israelites to call him back from exile in order to lead them against the oppressive Ammonites; Jephtha himself, upright and God-fearing, who claims that 'goodness shall make me great'; his wife, Storgè, whose support for her husband is almost overwhelmed by her love, and fear for his safety; his daughter Iphis, and her betrothed, Hamor, whose extended scene of gentle flirtation and heart-felt commitment to each other provides the tender counterpoint to what will happen in the final act.

For me, this final partnership had already produced the most delicate acting and glorious blending of soprano and counter-tenor voice, as delivered by Sarah Tynan and Daniel Taylor. True, I may have heard precisely the same thing had we been listening to the raw oratorio, as it were, but I am certain that their relationship touched a far deeper emotional chord by my having been allowed to witness it; put most simply, that I cared what happened to them.

Sarah Tynan (Iphis) and Daniel Taylor (Hamor) in Welsh National Opera's 2003 production of Handel's 'Jephtha'. Photo © 2003 Clive Barda
Sarah Tynan (Iphis) and Daniel Taylor (Hamor) in Welsh National Opera's 2003 production of Handel's 'Jephtha'. Photo © 2003 Clive Barda

And, on the theme of relationships, even the partially observant eye should have noticed Katie Mitchell's remarkable precision in the placing of performers so that one can read what is going on, in much the same way that the Victorians were used to reading their paintings. Indeed, she has a painterly eye herself, recalling the Italian masters of the Sixteenth Century: Veronese's ability to control a wide canvas, containing a profusion of figures; Caravaggio's focus on body posture and dramatically focused light. Add to this, the way that, rather than the simple stage curtain, three black screens or shutters are used to 'close down' the image at the end of each scene, and you have some idea of the visual richness and invention of this production.

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Copyright © 25 May 2003 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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