Reviewer's rating

ROH’s seasons of Handel’s Covent Garden Operas continues with Jeptha. Religious subjects were banned from performance in 1752, thus Jeptha, was composed as an oratorio, not an opera.  Jeptha, Handel’s last work, was composed in a month as Handel was going blind. As Handel’s personal darkness descended, darkness seeps into the music. After composing the chorus ‘how dark, O Lord are thy decrees’, Handel wrote in his score the words ‘reached here on 13th February 1751, unable to continue owing to the weakening sight of my left eye’.

The source is the Old Testament Book of Judges. Jeptha, an illegitimate son of a prostitute and a judge, was cast out by his brothers.  The Ammonites controlled the Israelites for the previous 18 years, vowing to ‘crush the race of Israel’ Jeptha’s brother Zebul offers Jeptha the throne if Jeptha defeats their Ammonite pagan neighbours. Jeptha vows with God that should he succeed, he will sacrifice the first living being he meets. The living being is his daughter, Iphis. After this revelation Iphis accepts her fate; Jeptha’s wife Storgé is furious; Hamor, Iphis’ betrothed offers his life instead. This is about fate – Jeptha’s deal with God. Must it really be so, must Jeptha really sacrifice his child?

The grizzly subject matter is very topical. Director Oliver Meers eliminates all trace of Jewishness – choosing a setting far from the biblical lands of the Middle East, instead ultra-zealous Puritans from the Handmaidens’ Tale fight Ammonites taken from a Hogarth tableau or Philistines from Samson. Ironically Jeptha comes from Gilead.

Allan Clayton as Jephtha

The stark, impressive set is mainly empty with two huge black stone walls with biblical texts opening and closing when needed.

British tenor Allan Clayton plays Jeptha as an extreme fundamentalist zealot, unwavering despite his daughter’s sacrifice. Clayton is vocally powerful and dramatically convincing.  ‘Waft, her angels’ is fine singing.

British mezzo Alice Coote, as Storgé, has lovely warm tones, but moves badly. The great aria ‘Scenes of horror, scenes of woe’ with smoke-breathing phantoms is excellent, but not quite the vocal show-stopper it could be.  ‘Let other creatures die’ could similarly have been more dramatic with a richer vocal palette.

British soprano Jennifer France’s Iphis is clear and sparklingly elegant. One vocal quibble is that ‘joy’, sung multiple times should not be sung dipthonged – as jo – I; it ruins the vocal line and closes the sound.

Canadian/Persian Counter-tenor Cameron-Shahbazi as Hamor, Iphis’s betrothed, is good-looking, highly sought-after. His is not the largest voice but with refined styling and good vocal palette, is well matched with France.

British bass Brindley Sheratt as Zebul gives solid support.  Lovely touches of delicacy, allowing the music to breathe, are added by experienced Handelian conductor, Laurence Cummings.

At the moment of sacrifice, God blows out the torches about to burn Iphis, on condition Iphis leads her life as a virgin devoted to God. She is dressed by the zealots as such. However, it is one thing to die to save your country, but to be forced to live as a nun next to her beloved, Hamor, is too much; they run away instead. This is a good moment!  Jeptha now becomes the sacrifice, prostrate, insane and dying.

The many choruses are very well sung.  Jumping on the ‘immersive’ bandwagon, the final chorus sings from the stalls.

The production’s message is that extremism leads inevitably to tragedy. The Puritans finally turn on Jephtha who is condemned to solitary suffering.

There are unresolved problems in Jeptha as an opera which are not problematic as an oratorio. Why is it Iphis the first person Jeptha sees, when in reality it is the chorus? Why does Hamor return from war covered in blood, singing a radiantly happy aria when he apparently has a serious case of PTSD, and looks permanently horrified? Why does Iphis tell us she is content with her lot as an eternal virgin, only to throw off her nun’s habit and rush away in Hamor’s arms?

Opera dramatically moves forward the action; oratorio does not, so does this staging work? Jeptha has already been successfully performed as opera in Amsterdam in 2016. The action is fairly static, filled with ‘exit arias’, but briefly takes off dramatically at a few points, notably the quartet ‘spare your daughter’.

I am a committed Handelian, but this is not an obvious crowd-pleaser.  Despite the superb singing, production, and sets, Jeptha does not dramatically take off enough, to justify an opera instead of an oratorio.