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Truly magnificent

Handel's 'Jephtha' at the London Coliseum,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Handel's Jephtha is not an opera, and both he and his librettist, the Rev Thomas Morrell, would probably be rather surprised at the idea of staging it. In Handel's day Jephtha was presented in the theatre, but in some sort of concert performance. At the Coliseum on Thursday 9 June 2005, English National Opera presented Jephtha in Katie Mitchell's staging which was first seen in 2003 at Welsh National Opera.

Thomas Morrell was a distinguished classical scholar and his version of Jephtha has a number of parallels with Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis. Though the libretto is pretty well constructed, Morrell's dialogue is rather stilted and undramatic; certainly the dramatic oratorios that Handel wrote with Charles Jennens are far closer to real stage drama. But by the time that Handel came to write Jephtha he was not interested in duplicating the dramatic oratorios like Saul and Belshazzar. Jephtha, and its immediate predecessor Theodora, are more contemplative, examining the nature of religion, choice and death. It is certainly significant that Handel was approaching the end of his life; he had already had a number of strokes and had to abandon the writing of Jephtha because he lost the sight in his eyes. With the spare simplicity of its music it would be easy to image a simple, neo-classical staging of the opera; one that simply relies on Handel's music and does not try to add too much to what is there.

But Katie Mitchell has chosen a different route; choosing to set the opera in a busy and highly detailed milieu. The opera is set in the 1940s in the headquarters building of the head of the armed forces of an unspecified Western nation, presumably Britain. The set is a triumph for designer Vicki Mortimer: a crumbling 19th century mansion with damaged walls and the remnants of elaborate plasterwork. The entire opera takes place either in the central hall of this mansion, with its grand staircase sweeping upstairs, or in one of the upstairs rooms. Also present for a great deal of the time are the chorus, dressed in a variety of imaginative 1940s costumes. We are to assume that they are the headquarters staff.

The constant presence of the chorus, either en masse or just a small group of them, means that the events are played out in public. Jephtha and his family are rarely private. Mitchell has created a lively backdrop of action which runs behind nearly all set pieces in the opera; for the first act and a half this opera is rarely still.

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Copyright © 13 June 2005 Robert Hugill, London UK


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