A stirring performance of Handel's Jephtha in a half-empty house

By Truman Wang
May 2, 2013

Say what you will about the stilted, antiquated conventions of the Baroque opera, with its seemingly endless hit parade of da capo arias and stand-and-deliver school of acting, Handel’s best dramatic works embrace, improve and ultimately rise above such conventions to rival the best works of Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi (who worked within their own set of conventions).  Geniuses do not always reinvent the wheel; they perfect the wheel. 

In many ways, Handel’s best-known oratorio Messiah is also his most atypical. There is no plot or dramatic actions in Messiah, a true sacred stage work. Jephtha, on the other hand, like most of the oratorios Handel wrote from 1740’s on, is really an opera in disguise and employs such operatic conventions as duets, trios, dramatic accompanied arioso/recitatives, and dramatic choruses commenting on the actions.

And what a great work it is! Thrillingly performed and sung by a superb cast and orchestra of the Handel and Haydn Society (who actually gave the American premiere of Jephtha back in 1850!) The Old Testament story is a familiar one, imported from Greek mythology of King Idomeneus of Crete vowing to appease God by sacrificing his son. Mozart, a great admirer of Handel, set the same story to music in his opera Idomeneo, and even made his own version of the Messiah with a much-expanded wind section. 

Conductor Harry Christophers opted for brisk tempi and whipped up some truly spectacular sounds from the small period-instrument orchestra made up of virtuoso players. From the majestic opening of the Act 1 sinfonia, to the military ritornello in Jephtha’s first aria (“Pour forth no more”), to the exhilarating dotted rhythms of the Act 3 sinfonia, the orchestral playing was vibrant and top-notch. If I had to single out one player, it would be flutist Christopher Krueger, whose sweetly mellifluous playing lent extra poignancy to Storge’s aria “In gentle murmurs will I mourn”, and extra joy to Iphis’ aria “Tune the soft melodious lute”.

One of Handel’s geniuses is his uncanny ability to depict the changing psychological states of his characters with simple musical means (the aforementioned flute example is one). This shows as early as in his first Italian oratorio Il Resurrezione (1708), where Magdalena’s sleep aria is accompanied by solo flute and muted strings, slowly wafting her to sleep. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers sang a warm and passionate Storge, Jephtha’s suffering wife. Soprano Joelle Harvey, as Jephtha’s daughter Iphis, conveyed joy, then shock and sadness, and back to joy again with her radiant silvery tones, despite one faulty entry in the da capo of her Act 2 aria “Tune the soft melodious lute”. Countertenor William Purefoy, while no David Daniels, made a credible suitor out of Hamor, Jephtha’s boyfriend. Finally, towering above them all was tenor Robert Murray’s noble, authoritative singing as Jephtha. On hearing Mr. Murray, one had the distinct impression of witnessing a happy man being thrown into a moral and emotional turmoil as a result of his own actions, and a suave lyrical voice being transformed into an excitingly heroic one.

The Chorus of the Handel and Haydn Society was nothing short of stunning in their precision and dramatic urgency, projecting wide-ranging shades of emotion from light to dark. The celebrated chorus “How dark o Lord are thy decrees” was grippingly powerful. 

Rounding out this fine presentation of a great dramatic work, the complete text of Jephtha was included with the program. The half-empty auditorium was an embarrassment to the city of Los Angeles, which has committed itself wholeheartedly to community arts outreach since Dudamel’s arrival in 2009 and this was all they had to show for it.  Truly shameful.

Truman C. Wang is editor-in-chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.