in: Reviews

March 14, 2011

Angel Saves Iphis, Jeptha

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On Sunday, March 13, Boston Cecilia, conducted by Donald Teeters, performed Handel’s oratorio Jeptha (1751), the only one with period instruments (in the series beginning in 1981) that has been performed twice by the group. After directing it since 1968, Teeters has announced that this is the last full Handel oratorio he will conduct before stepping down next year. (See the interview with Teeters in these pages.) It is also the last oratorio that Handel composed (with the exception of one later work consisting entirely of earlier music). So this performance came at a time of transition in the life of this venerable group, initially formed by B. J. Lang in 1874 for a concert of Mendelssohn’s Walpurgisnacht with the orchestra of the Harvard Musical Association. (The Boston Cecilia cites its official date of founding two years later, when it became independent of the orchestra.)

Then as now, the chorus was comprised of capable musical amateurs (with emphasis on the root of that word), although the numbers have been reduced from whatever it took to occupy the ample full stage of Boston’s Music Hall in 1874, to fifty-two in 2011. This number is nevertheless still slightly larger than the size of performing forces consistent with what scholars have determined is Handel’s general practice (chorus and instruments combined, about sixty).

On Saturday Boston Cecilia’s Period Instrument Orchestra included exactly the types of wind instruments Handel calls for (two each of traversi, oboes, bassoons, natural horns, trumpets) plus strings (in this case 6-6-4-3-1), and continuo (organ with chorus, harpsichord with soloists), or a total of thirty-one. (Actually there were thirty-two, with the addition of timpani, sparingly used with the chorus in Acts I and III, that Handel did not specify in his score). This is a larger number of strings than would have been heard in Handel’s time but was required by Cecilia’s larger chorus. All the violins played during each of the arias, but usually very softly and adeptly, with incredible grace, on many occasions almost as one gentle sound. Handel used his instrumentation to assist in characterizing the changing roles of the soloists as the oratorio developed. The violas mostly sat out during the arias, although Handel calls for a viola with arias by only the male characters in the first act, and later, as the libretto and music become more agitated, with all the arias. According to the score, the traversi accompany only two of the arias, by women’s voices, while the oboes (doubling the violins), play in only one, with the countertenor, Hamor. The bassoons double the contrabass in the choruses. The horns play with only one chorus in the first act, and the trumpets with the first and last chorus. So the instrumental sound was chiefly violins and continuo, with winds (and timpani) for accent and dramatic effect. The concert-master was Daniel Stepner.

Originating in a few verses in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Judges about a minor biblical figure (Jephtha), the libretto by Thomas Morell (1703-1759) significantly changes both the characters and the dire outcome to a so-called “happy ending.” The story in Judges involves only Jephtha, the outcast son of a harlot, who, when asked by the Elders to lead the Israelites in war against the Ammonites, accepts on the condition that he will remain the Israelites’ leader. He also vows that if victorious, the first person who greets him upon his return will be sacrificed. That turns out to be his (unnamed) daughter. A 16th-century tragedy, Jephte sive votum (1557), by Scottish poet George Buchanan (1506-1582), named the daughter Iphis and added the characters Storgé, Jephtha’s wife, and Zabul, his brother. Morell’s elaboration goes well beyond, adding Hamor, Iphis’s lover, and an angelus ex machina in Act III, who tells Jephtha that his vow can be fulfilled by dedicating his daughter to a “pure and virgin state forever.” There follows much rejoicing. Some critics say Morell’s elaboration is more in keeping with eighteenth-century writings on virginity, filial devotion, and patriotism, and that Handel celebrates these values with his light-hearted dance forms, not only in the instrumental interludes, but also in some of the arias — Iphis’s first aria in Act II, scene 3 (“Welcome as the cheerful light”) is marked, A tempo di gavotta in the score, which only heightens the horror as she welcomes her father back from the war.

Teeters’s conducting was by turns vigorous and sometimes seemingly hunched over, caressing this music he knows so well, which was performed with all the notated repeats. The pontificating choruses are long and sometimes overbalanced the orchestra. The opening and closing choruses are marked Allegro, but the others all Grave, or Adagio, with only one Alla breve (relatively quick). Most were homophonic, but some were energetically fugal, with exposed entrances by section, which the chorus members managed well.

The role of Jephtha was magnificently filled by tenor Aaron Sheehan. His clear, nearly vibrato-less voice has enough richness to carry well over the accompanying textures, and he himself has enough dramatic flair to project the role’s needed pride, angst, remorse, and joy by turns. His second-act recitative and aria, “Zabul, thy deeds were valiant, . .  His mighty arm, with sudden blow,” earned spontaneous applause from the otherwise “correct” audience. Baritone Ron Williams has a much deeper, more resonant voice, which worked well for the role of  Zabul, who functions as a more frequent, agile commentator than does the chorus. Boy soprano Ryan Williams (the Angel), nearly brought the house down with the sheer simplicity of his clear voice telling the news of Iphis’s reprieve. The other soloists, all of whom have fine voices, may have been miscast. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore (Storgé) has a warm, clear, voice that seems perfect for this music, except that she seemed lacking, especially toward the end, in the kind of vocal energy necessary to impress the poignancy of her laments and her subsequent relief. Soprano Teresa Wakim (Iphis), on the other hand, has a large voice with ringing vibrato; although she demonstrated she is capable of dramatically reduced hushed tones, in general she overwhelmed the piece. (Both of these singers are active in early music performances, and I look forward to hearing them elsewhere.) Handel created the role of Hamor, a soldier in love with Iphis, as a contralto, whereas counter-tenor Martin Near’s Fach more nearly approaches that of a piercing lyric soprano. For the most part his voice was jarring in this context, with one amazing exception: his duet with Teresa Wakim in the first act—that’s “a keeper”!

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

7 Comments

  1. Ms. Davidson is too kind. Nothing said about the orchestra. The playing was plodding, marching in the mud. Cadence, everyone. Off to the wars. Dis-spirited, perhaps? Concertmaster Daniel Stepner was trying valiantly, with his so-light, springing touch, to raise the level, but how could he? The Force was against him. Many of the players, too, are worthy Baroque players, so we must cast the blame for this performance at the feet of the conductor.

    As for the counter-tenor, his voice was too thin to fight against the forces, as became so evident by Act II. And a screech from Wakim in the first act made this listener jump (metaphorically); such emotion belonged in Act III, but wasn’t there.

    And as for that Angel, what a deus ex machina HE was! Beautiful tone, wonderful feeling, words that were understandable… He shone in Boston Lyric Opera’s Tosca, he shone here. Guess I’ll have to drag myself to Trinity Church to hear him there, too.

    Comment by Settantenne Amante di Musica — March 15, 2011 at 6:59 am

  2. Once again, I find myself wondering if there is a place for anonymous comments on this blog.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — March 15, 2011 at 10:10 am

  3. Michael-

    I agree that pseudonymous comments should be discouraged, but i don’t have the time to check every commentor’s email address. We couldn’t do without Romy the Cat and the like. What I do is to check the hostile and annoying comments from time to time to see if they originate from an actual email address. When they don’t, they don’t get published.

    Using one’s own name is also not all that matters. What about disclosure of connections? We got about 20 very hostile reactions to a review of the Newton Choral Society from husbands and wives of singers, players and board members. Only one of the 20 disclosed her connection.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 15, 2011 at 11:42 am

  4. Lee-

    Your points are well taken. My comment should have been more clearly directed to the commentators themselves – and I remember very well the stream of comments about the NCS review.

    The internet, for all of its wonderful qualities, seems to have become an all-to-accessible venue for uncivil discourse. Perhaps the above commentator – signing his or her actual name – would have found it possible to get the point across in a more constructive and less sarcastic way.

    Thank you for your tireless work on this terrific blog!

    Comment by Michael Beattie — March 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm

  5. The headline on this review implies that the performance needed saving, but there was much to enjoy before our Angel appeared. While he was pitch-perfect and had brilliant tone, I wish someone could coach him in phrasing. He’s rather an extraordinary but mechanical machine. Maybe he’ll learn from Aaron Sheehan’s wonderful way with “Waft her, angels, through the skies,” the highlight of the afternoon for me. The audience reaction struck me as way out of proportion, but perhaps they were reacting as grandparents at that point.

    Comment by Bill — March 17, 2011 at 10:00 am

  6. A comment from the editor: BMInt has reviewed several concerts by Boston Cecilia in the past year. The one this past December was called “surely a fine Christmas gift” by reviewer Geoffrey Wieting, though he did note that one piece “was sung expressively, with all the choral virtues heretofore noted, but also with a curious New England Puritan detachment.” For another, he noted, “Good balance and minimal vibrato for clarity are essential to the success of this piece, and the Cecilia delivered again.”

    Brian Jones, almost a year ago, reviewing another concert, wrote, “How can a reviewer do justice to a program and performance this fine? Presiding over the entire occasion was the generous spirit, intelligence and musicianship of Donald Teeters, one of Boston’s musical treasures.” The headline of this review was “Transcendent”; unlike most, this did not appear in the words of the review, but seemed to sum up its content.

    I bring this up here because even groups that have such a fine history can have an occasion that does not work that well. I was at the concert this past weekend, and I am sorry to say, I was disappointed. The biggest problem, I thought, was the size of the chorus. And I did feel that the entire performance may have had too big a dose of that “Puritan detachment” noted by Wieting, above. Whatever, it did not rise. When Ryan Williams finished singing (with such clear diction, not the case for much of the singing), the audience response was an instantaneous loud round of applause, more enthusiastic than for any other aria of the evening, and sustained enough that the young man had to step forward once more for another bow — with a sweet smile on his face.

    My title of the review may seem a bit excessive for the content of the review, but it was meant to be provocative, and it was hard not to give young Williams his due.

    Again, this is not to downgrade all that Donald Teeters of Boston Cecilia mean and have meant to Boston. It just was not one of their best efforts, …

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — March 17, 2011 at 2:46 pm

  7. Several (otherwise immaterial) details may be worth addressing given the discussion of Cecilia’s performance forces, which began in the review and continues in the comments.

    While I would be pleased to hear about additional sources, much of what we know of the performing forces that Handel engaged during the final decades of his life must be extrapolated from only a few documents. For present purposes, the most important of these are the 1754 and ’58 pay-lists for the Foundling Hospital performances of Messiah. We may be relatively certain that the number and disposition of players observed there was similar to contemporary oratorio performances at London theatres such as Covent Garden or Haymarket. Allowing for minor variation, we may surmise that Handel anticipated an orchestra of relatively consistent size. In 1754—I use this list because of its vicinity to the premiere performance of Jephtha (or Jeptha, as above)—he employed fourteen violins (first and second), six violas, three cellos, one double bass, four oboes, four bassoons, two trumpets, two horns, one timpani and one organ. Rather than slightly larger, then, the Cecilia orchestra was slightly smaller than the group Handel was likely to have been accustomed to.

    The Cecilia chorus, meanwhile, was more than twice the size of the vocal contingent for the 1754 Foundling Hospital performance, where vocalists including soloists numbered around two dozen. (Ambiguity arises from a single-line item in the pay-list for “Boys”.) Regarding quality, or at least standing, the voices in all oratorio performances during Handel’s lifetime comprised only professional singers.

    For additional insight about these topics, I recommend the chapters by Mark W. Stahura and Donald Burrows in The Cambridge Companion to Handel, ed. Donald Burrows (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and, Donald Burrows, “Handel’s London Theatre Orchestra,” Early Music 13, no. 3 (Aug. 1985): 349-57.

    It may be worthwhile also to reconsider the (in)appropriateness of Mr Near in the role of Hamor. Mr Brent, alto, premiered the role in 1752. Mrs Isabella Scott (née Young) ultimately replaced him (in 1758, though perhaps ’56). While she was occasionally billed as a contralto, she was often listed as mezzo-soprano. In any case, I would hesitate to draw anything more than the most general timbral suppositions from eighteenth-century vocal distinctions.

    And, finally, I would be curious to know about the decision to distinguish between the title of Handel’s work (Jeptha) and its eponymous hero (Jephtha). To be sure, uncertainty abounds in early sources. In his autograph score, Handel twice wrote “Jephta” in the overture before overwriting “Jeptha”. Once he has this out of his system however, “Jeptha” predominates. One also observes “Jeptha” in the manuscript libretto and the advertisement for the premiere performance. Meanwhile, “Jephtha” appears in the first edition word-book—likely a compositor emendation—and, indeed, this spelling has superseded all others in nearly all sources, including the critical edition published by Bärenreiter as part of the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe. Such variance was not uncommon, consider Sam(p)son or Judas Macc(h)abæus. Yet, to my knowledge, no source of any age distinguishes (at least, intentionally) between the spelling of the work’s title and its title character.

    More than any of this, however, sincere thanks to Boston Cecilia and Maestro Teeters for their continued commitment to Handel’s oratorios—a demanding yet deeply appreciated enterprise. Sincere thanks.

    Comment by Andrew Shryock — March 18, 2011 at 6:31 pm

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