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<<  -- 4 --  Robert Hugill    TRULY MAGNIFICENT

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Act 3 opens with Jephtha's aria Waft her angels, magically sung by Padmore as he cradled an almost catatonic Iphis; the very image of a father caring for his daughter. Or perhaps not. For most of this Act, Mitchell creates a scenario which almost goes against the sense of Handel's music. She and her cast create a stunningly moving performance, so that we almost weep at Iphis's fate, sympathise with Storgè and come to hate Jephtha. But on leaving the magic of the theatre, we realise that what we have seen was not reflected in Handel's music.

During Waft her angels, Jephtha gestures to aids and they pass him a bandage with which he binds his daughter's eyes; we are left wondering whether Jephtha intends the aria as true consolation for his daughter, or regards it simply as a way to calm her whilst he can prepare her for execution. As I have said, Handel was not strictly interested in pure drama here. His Iphis almost transcendently accepts her fate (there are strong echoes of Theodora here) in her long accompanied recitative and air. But, though Tynan sang this gloriously, she was constantly being manhandled by the men of the household as they tried to bind her and hurry her to her fate, Jephtha constantly in the background furiously mouthing commands, no longer the loving father but the controlling general. And Tynan was not transcendently accepting, but alternated between catatonia (or as near to catatonic as you can get when singing in opera) and furious struggle. This was moving and made us appreciate the lieto fine all the more; but it is not really what Handel and Morrell had in mind.

This 'happy' ending, when it comes, is a shock, and the finale of the opera, as seen by Mitchell and her cast, is anything but triumphant as the characters try to come to terms with their trauma. Our final image is of Padmore, working hard signing papers, very much the head of state, completely ignoring the departure of his wife and daughter (presumably to the nunnery).

The singers were well supported by the ENO orchestra under Nicholas Kraemer. The orchestra members are now seasoned hands at giving us period-aware performances, and their playing was a joy. The chorus too, were on form, giving a lively shape to Handel's choruses and never trying to overwhelm us with sound; the only problems were the occasional lapses of coordination between chorus and pit.

This performance was a truly magnificent achievement. Whatever niggling doubts I have about Mitchell's production, there is no doubting the way that she and her cast managed to completely bring to life the trauma that is implicit in this difficult story.

Copyright © 13 June 2005 Robert Hugill, London UK

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The last performance in the current run of this English National Opera production of Handel's Jephtha is at 7pm on Wednesday 15 June 2005 at the London Coliseum.

Read Rex Harley's review of the original Welsh National Opera production in 2003.

Other Handel performances reviewed by Robert Hugill include the Cambridge Handel Opera Group's Tamerlano and Zurich Opera's Radamisto. Robert Hugill also investigates the fascinating world of opera in eighteenth century London, in Handel's Singers. For Handel on DVD, read Robert Anderson's review of Opera Australia's production of Giulio Cesare, live from the Sydney Opera House.

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