What would you sacrifice to gain a victory? While this question may be at the forefront of many of our minds in light of the conflict in the Middle East, director Oliver Mears’s new production of Jephtha avoids making any obtuse connections. This biblical tale isn’t set in Jephtha’s Israel but Handel’s England. Fanatical puritanism and, principally, the dangers of absolutism are the focus of this Enlightenment-style brawl.
The sacrifice of a daughter to secure victory in battle is a theme far older than the account of Jephtha in the Old Testament. Although Jephtha’s sacrifice is unwitting, not explicitly promising Jehovah his daughter but the first living thing that greets him on his return home, there is a marked similarity between this tale and countless others.
Despite being a gruesome warrior and religious zealot, the unknowing nature of Jephtha’s sacrifice allows him to express real heartbreak, and become a quasi-tragic character.
Designer Simon Lima Holdsworth’s imposing vision works brilliantly with the oratorio’s intensity. The congregation is constantly oppressed by great slabs of marble, occasionally parting to reveal the Hogarthian revelry of the opposing Ammonites. Jephtha’s vow in the Book of Judges is carved into these looming structures, a configuration that emphasises the misplaced power imposed by the book in every chorus member’s hand. In and amongst these colossal walls, every scene is given a biblical gravity through Fabiana Piccioli’s lighting design.
Allan Clayton, famous for his performances of tragic characters, takes on the lead role. His Jephtha is fanatical, severe and deeply convincing. ‘Open thy jaws’ he speaks upon realising his grave error, ‘hide me, earth, in thy dark womb’. The complex colour of Clayton’s tenor is a wonder to behold. Likewise, Brindley Sherratt as Jephtha’s brother, Zebul, showcases a thrilling command of the material.
Jennifer France, however, really steals the show. In her hands, Iphis is resplendent joy in human form as Handel intended, but in line with Mears’s vision she also showcases an unwavering self-possession. Equal measures sweet and coy, France’s complex Iphis is a delight. Her white-hot soprano melts together with Shahbazi’s sugary countertenor, culminating in beautiful da capo arias.
For a production that has a determined and obvious concept, it is a shame the Royal Opera House chorus seem to lack conviction. In the hands of conductor Laurence Cummings, moments of solemnity are certainly more persuasive than moments of joy. However, this is no doubt linked to the intricacies of this production.
Perhaps controversially, this Jephtha celebrates complexity. Somewhere between complete debauchery and enforced purity there is real love, real pain, and real humanity.
Not everything works perfectly in this production, but the questions Mears poses brings Handel’s Jephtha an undeniably compelling modern depth. Although some will no doubt say that Jephtha, as an oratorio, should be kept as a concert piece, this production proves there is nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned twist.