Händel - Jephtha

ONP Garnier, Monday January 22 2018

Conductor: William Christie. Director: Claus Guth. Sets: Katrin Lea Tag. Lighting: Bernd Purkrabek. Video: Arian Andiel. Choreography: Sommer Ulrickson. Jephtha: Ian Bostridge. Storgé: Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Iphis: Katherine Watson. Hamor: Tim Mead. Zebul: Philippe Sly. Angel: Valer Sabadus. Orchestra and Chorus of Les Arts Florissants.

According to classicalvoiceamerica.org, "It has become almost customary to stage Handel’s oratorios, essentially turning them into operas. It makes sense, actually."

I'm not so sure. If oratorio were opera, we wouldn't need a different word for it. Some oratorios lack the dramatic cranks, levers and pulleys that make opera theatrical, and the protagonists may, in addition, lack distinct personalities. Claus Guth's production plugged away at it gamely in acts one and two of Jephtha the other night with a parade of ideas, videos, stage business and even some dancing of sorts, but Jephtha, stubbornly, wasn't really having it. Or at any rate, what we heard - fairly placid stuff with little plot-advancing impetus - stubbornly refused to live up to all we saw. The drama in the libretto and score of this work only really gets going in act three - when suddenly it seemed Händel the man of the theatre, as well as Christie and his musicians, were all more enthusiastic, engaged and inspired.

Guth's vision of Jephtha is bleak, black and bloody, naggingly, bitterly questioning the opening words, "It must be so," and later "Whatever is, is right." Victory in battle is hollow, the outcome of fearful death and destruction on both sides. God is a vain, bloodthirsty tyrant: as Ivy Compton Burnett noted, the Bible, with God as "One of the best-drawn characters in fiction," may be an unsuitable book, but it's one from which we can profitably gain a knowledge of the prevalence of wickedness. His praises are sung through gritted teeth and under coercion from black-jumpsuited (what else?) priests. Unless my eyes deceived me, Jephtha (whose crown was merely a token, gilded cardboard one - the Burger King sort) actually spat on the ground as he addressed God when parting with his daughter. And while in this case (not in the Bible) the dénouement is a Mackie-Messer-style reprieve announced by an angel, by the end Iphis, her hair hacked off by priest-guards, is seated in a plain white shift, on a hospital bed, gutting her pillow and strewing the feathers like Ophelia strewing flowers. "Joys triumphant crown thy days."

He probably doesn’t do it on purpose, but in some productions Guth gives the impression he’s afraid opera-goers may be a bit too thick to “get it” without verbal and visual aids. In his “lost-in-space” Bohème in Paris recently, he projected the log Rodolfo was keeping to be sure we knew what was happening to the hapless crew, but it was obvious and superfluous. In Jeptha, applying the same belt-and-braces principle, he filled his staging with symbols – “excès des signes” Forum Opera called it.

The basic colour code was grey – 50 nuances of it, one French review suggested - mostly set against a mountainous desert horizon. During the overture, the backstory was set by brief vignettes viewed through a scrim covered with scratchy grey projections, darkly. The words “It must be so” soon appeared in huge projected characters, and from then on, at various moments, were hammered home by more three-dimensional letters, some big enough for singers to hitch a ride on, some small, gliding across the stage to form anagrams. The fateful door through which Jeptha would meet his daughter popped up in various places at various stages. As Storgé sang of doves, black crows circled the sky (my poetic licence: they dangled on wires). Sometimes a large, rocky cloud, or cloudy rock, hung portentously overhead, as if raindrops were falling on their heads. Iphis’s double was bloodied early on, predicting the sacrifice. Jeptha made his vow in a garden of giant, venomous-looking plants. Dancers danced suggestively. Battle scenes and bomb blasts were projected over the set. Nearer the end, Iphis sang in front of an enormous, yellow, pop-art spotlight shaft that was lowered down from above.

And so on. In all, too many things to remember, especially in the right order, resulting, to my mind, in disjointedness instead of gelling into something coherent. The directing was certainly detailed. But while Guth succeeded in endowing Bostridge, in his grubby djellaba and military great coat or, later, plain suit jacket, with a complex, tortured psyche, and Marie-Nicole Lemieux put in a great deal of expressionist effort to portray a raving sort of Cassandra, Hamor (in spite of his dirty rags, wild “hermit” beard, and “Lion King” streaks on his cheeks) and above all Iphis remained psychologically indistinct: just the usual star-crossed young lovers.

Philippe Sly’s voice is clear and light and a little hollow-sounding and unsteady, as if lacking some support and thus projection in a house the size of Garnier. Physically, however, in his plutocrat’s fur-collared coat and natty suits, he struck a dashing figure. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s singing was as expressionistic as her acting and at times almost disconcertingly spasmodic: dramatic declamation taken to, and maybe just beyond, the extreme. But as I said, she was projecting a Cassandra-like persona, so maybe the wildness was right. The Angel would, I think, have been better cast as I believe Händel intended, with a boy soprano.

Katherine Watson was, on the other hand, perfectly cast as Isis. I thought on Monday what I thought about her before, as Theodora:

... remarkably accomplished and musical - a sweet soprano voice but with reserves of power, intelligently and sensitively used, taking me back to an earlier, "emerging HIP" British Händelian generation: the likes of Sheila Armstrong or Felicity Palmer. […] I see (on her web site) that Hugh Canning (Sunday Times) has already said "Clearly one to watch." I had the same thought, and will look out for her in future. 

And here she was.

And I was relieved to find that what may sound “precious” or even pretentious when you hear Ian Bostridge on disc turns out to be useful and effective in a big opera house, giving definite outlines to his vocal characterisation, in support of his committed acting, and projecting his text audibly and comprehensibly into the hall. I’d no idea, before, that he was such an operatic “beast”. A grim, embittered Jeptha.

As mentioned above, William Christie and his orchestra seemed more inspired in act 3 than before, when the playing (but also, to a great extent, the score) was relatively placid. The chorus was as good as usual, i.e. very good. And things got a lot livelier and punchier when the shit hit the fan in act 3, so in the end it turned out to be a very decent evening. If this production comes back, and Guth in the meantime edits it somewhat to make it less complicated, it might well end up being one to buy on video.


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