'Jephtha' at the London Handel Festival,
heard by ROBERT HUGILL
The 250th Anniversary of Handel's death was commemorated on 14 April 2009 with a concert of his final oratorio Jephtha, performed as the closing event of the 2009 London Handel Festival. The venue was St George's Church, Hanover Square, London, UK, which was the composer's own parish church.
Laurence Cummings conducted the London Handel Festival choir and orchestra with a remarkably strong cast. John Mark Ainsley played Jephtha, with Diana Moore as his wife Storge (replacing an ailing Charlotte Hellekant), Sarah Tynan as his daughter Iphis, Derek Welton as his brother Zebul and Iestyn Davies as Iphis's fiancée, Hamor.
Recently the role of Jephtha has rather been the province of Mark Padmore, who has sung the role with Welsh National Opera and English National Opera, as well as performing it in concert at the Barbican. So it was doubly welcome to find John Mark Ainsley making a rare London appearance in the role. Ainsley's recording of the role, made in the 1990s, has been issued on the Brilliant label but since then he has grown as an artist and his performance acquired a notable depth.
Ainsley has quite a range of roles in his repertoire but his voice has retained the line and focus that is necessary in this type of role. He also displayed a notable facility with Handel's passagework and Cummings' fondness for fast tempi seemed to give Ainsley no pause. In the first half Ainsley's Jephtha was suitably self-confident with a trace of arrogance. After he has met his daughter on returning from his victory, his vow to God thus condemns her to a sacrificial death.
From here on, Handel and his librettist Morrell require Jephtha to suffer profoundly. Perhaps the aria 'Open thy marble jaws' seemed a little too equable, though Ainsley displayed remarkable musicality and a deft technique. But with the accompanied recitative 'Deeper and deeper', Ainsley dug deep and created a profoundly dramatic moment, made all the more moving by coming straight after Sarah Tynan's poignant account of 'Happy they'. In Jephtha's final aria, 'Waft her angels', Handel created one of his perfect moments, and Ainsley gave the aria stillness which rendered it perfectly.
As Storge, his wife, Diana Moore took over the role at the last minute, but her consummate performance displayed no signs of this. Her Storge was a touchingly warm mother, with not so much of the shrewishness that some singers bring to the role. I felt that her account of 'Scenes of horror' could have been more vivid: Moore seemed to be a little too well-balanced here. But with 'First perish thou', her response to Jephtha after learning of his voice, Moore imbued her performance with a tremendous vituperation.
Sarah Tynan's Iphis is something of a known quality as she has performed it on stage with ENO. But in a far smaller venue such as St George's Church, we were able to get to know her performance in more detail. Tynan brings an admirable technique and a beautifully limpid voice to the role. But she is much more than this: from the first she created in Iphis a simple directness. She added to this both poignancy and a slightly steely nobility as the character's role developed. Tynan made Iphis a real character rather than a cipher, and she did this by performing Handel's music with beauty and intelligence.
As her fiancée, Hamor, Iestyn Davies was saddled with a role whose only dramatic function is to provide a foil for Iphis. But Davies brought to the role both conviction and technique, he made Hamor far more interesting than he often is. Davies conveyed not only the panting lover, but in his Act 2 aria telling of the victory, he conveyed something of Hamor's martial nature. We also got to hear Hamor's final aria, 'Tis Heaven's all-ruling power', which Davies formed into a fine conclusion.
Derek Welton, the 2007 London Handel Festival singing competition winner, invested Zebul with resounding commitment and ringing tone. Handel allows him little else, and Welton is to be commended for bringing the role of so well. Rhona McKall was a dramatic Angel, who appears at the last minute to resolve the conflict in the plot.
We heard Handel's first version of the oratorio so there was no concluding Quintet. But we heard the work complete which is undoubtedly a profound advantage in the current concert-going age when Handel oratorios are routinely pruned.
St George's Church does not offer a huge performing space, but the London Handel Festival chorus and orchestra filled every available space and contributed a performance of notable liveliness. The orchestra performed the overture and symphonies with vividness and accompanied finely. Handel used quite a big orchestra so that the final chorus in Act 1 had a pair of brilliant horn parts, trumpets occur in the opening and closing proceedings and a flute contributed an occasional obbligato; all were performed with consummate ease.
The chorus were equally committed, making a fine noise in some of Handel's massive choruses. They do not play much of a dramatic function in the oratorio, but Handel includes some significant choruses which comment on the action.
Lawrence Cummings conducted the work with his usual lively flair. His fast tempi were sometimes very fast, but this did not seem to trouble his talented group of soloists and performers. For the long sequence from the middle of Act 2 to the end of the piece, all performers conspired together to create a dramatic whole which was both musical, moving and remarkably satisfying. This was music making at a high level.
This was a notable highlight of the 2009 festival. The concert was recorded by the BBC so that we can hear these delights again.
Copyright © 16 April 2009
HANDEL'S 'JEPHTHA' AT ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA
'JEPHTHA' AT WELSH NATIONAL OPERA
A recording of this concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, starting at 6.30pm (BST) on Friday 17 April 2009.