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Perhaps my voluble critic had changed his mind by the end of the next act. Not so a lady sitting just behind me, however, who remarked to her companion at the start of the second interval: 'The acting seems entirely superfluous to me.' I decided to pass by, rather than offer an unwelcome riposte. After all, if she had not been affected by the unfolding tragedy directly, what could I say to convince her?

Because, by now we had entered the dark heart of the drama. In the pattern of Greek tragedy, the moment of triumph turns suddenly sour, precipitated by the hero's fatal flaw: here, Jephtha's determined, and quite unbidden oath to God to sacrifice the first living thing that greets him on his return from battle. We have seen his daughter's joy at the news of his success, her decision to don her bridal dress and hail him with a song celebrating the arrival of 'peace on her triumphant wings', and waited aghast for Jephtha's response; seen him hurl himself to the ground, literally attempting to live out the words of his aria: 'hide me, earth, in thy dark womb'; watched as his wife, brother and future son-in-law beg him to relent, and then see him further heart-broken by his daughter's willingness to die. Finally, the words of the chorus have pounded home the chilling message, in their attempt to steel Jephtha's nerve: 'Whatever is, is right.'

And again, during this second act, Katie Mitchell's deft directorial touches picked out the salient moments without over-stressing them: notably, when Jephtha, his back to the audience, freezes as his daughter descends the staircase towards him. Unaware, those at his side continue to pat his back in congratulation, but what we see is his right hand, twisted behind him, convulsively clutching the frame of the chair. When he lunges up and tips the tables in front of him to the ground, it is less a shock than a momentary release of the built-up tension.

As for the acting being 'superfluous', everything that was sung was informed by the position of the body and the facial expression in a way that would be quite impossible with a concert performance. The opening words of that terrible plea of Jephtha -- 'Open thy marble jaws, O tomb!' -- almost made the hair stand on end. Sung like this on the concert platform, it would sound histrionic; here it was entirely authentic.

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Copyright © 25 May 2003 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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