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”!