in: Reviews

May 6, 2013

Handel’s Swan Song Sung by H & H

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Founded in 1815, Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society considers itself to be “America’s oldest continuously performing arts organization.” [The Old Stoughton Musical Society, organized in 1786, makes a similar claim.] With its bicentennial swiftly approaching, Artistic Director Harry Christophers, CBE, has stated his intention to “devote some time to the wonderful oratorios of Handel.” To that end, H&H reacquainted itself with a strangely neglected old friend, Jephtha, whose American premiere it gave in 1855 (having first performed excerpts in 1817). The performance on Friday, May 3, at Symphony Hall, the organization’s first since 1867, followed an acclaimed West Coast tour with it,  also featuring Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Sensitive to the current local atmosphere, Christophers and the ensemble thoughtfully dedicated the performance to the city of Boston and those directly affected by the Boston Marathon bombing.

The Biblical story of Jephtha (Judges 11) makes a compelling basis for Handel’s last oratorio. Making a rash deal with God, Jephtha, leader of the Israelites, vows, in return for military conquest, to sacrifice the first person to greet him following victory over the Ammonites. That person turns out to be his only child, his daughter Iphis, and in the Bible she is indeed duly sacrificed. Handel’s librettist, Rev. Thomas Morell, opted for a gentler ending: through divine intervention Iphis is allowed to live, dedicating her life to God (i.e., remaining celibate). To flesh out the drama Morell also added the non-Biblical characters of Storgè, Jephtha’s wife, Zebul, his brother, Hamor, the beloved of Iphis, and the intervening Angel at the dénouement.

H&H assembled an impressive cast of singers for this important revival, and the orchestra and chorus were no less outstanding under Christophers’ accomplished direction. Act One had a quick succession of moods. A stentorian call to purity of faith by Zebul was sung with inspiring vocal and dramatic authority by baritone Woodrow Bynum. In the deeply moving lament of Storgè for her husband’s upcoming departure, mezzo soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers and the orchestra, particularly flutist Christopher Krueger, beautifully portrayed the “mate-forsaken dove.” The mutual declarations of love of Hamor and Iphis were interestingly restrained, even allowing for the fact that this is oratorio, not opera; but the singing of countertenor William Purefoy and soprano Joélle Harvey was no less beguiling for that, and their devotion was never in doubt. Next, Jephtha’s inner conflicts were masterfully conveyed by tenor Robert Murray in a series of recitatives, initially proud and militaristic but turning insecure and humble before God, leading to his fateful pledge. Storgè gives voice to her vague feeling of looming catastrophe first in recitative (“some dire event hangs o’er our heads”), then more intensely in the following aria (“scenes of horror, scenes of woe”); in the da capo Wyn-Rogers permitted herself some touches of chest voice which enhanced the bad omen. The contrast is telling when Iphis then attempts to comfort her mother, telling her that there is no basis for her nightmares. Harvey sounded radiant and fully confident that Jephtha was already victorious. The act ended with the Israelites amplifying this confidence in a chorus that in both text and musical figures is a clear pre-echo of “Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty land” from Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah. They each say, in essence, powerful though surging waters and foaming billows are, God is yet more powerful, and both composers thrillingly depict rushing waters with turbulent string writing. The orchestra and chorus had a wondrous impact here.

Act Two opens with the official announcement of the Israelites’ victory followed by the very striking chorus “Cherub and seraphim, unbodied forms,” which indeed felt heavenly with the high strings’ introduction and the sopranos’ sweetly caroling in thirds. Soon the other voices, choral and orchestral, joined in to paint “They ride on whirlwinds, directing the storms” with scintillating passagework and cresting and falling dynamics. After Iphis and Hamor blissfully reunite—with much florid vocal writing effortlessly tossed off by Harvey and Purefoy—Iphis leads her chorus of virgins to meet her father and proclaim him “guardian angel of our land.”

But Christophers didn’t even allow the virgin chorus’s joyful final chord to die away before Jephtha, seeing his daughter first, exclaimed “Horror, confusion!” Murray was dramatically riveting in the succeeding aria “Open thy marble jaws, O tomb” with its enormous sudden contrasts of dynamics and range. His second nightmare is being forced to fess up to everyone else about Iphis’s necessary sacrifice, and Storgè’s ballistic response has all the fire and brimstone we’ve been waiting for since her first-act premonitions. Wyn-Rogers gave a spectacular performance; again her husky chest register made her near-dementia especially vivid. Following all the characters’ unrealistic pleading with Jephtha to break his vow and spare his daughter, Iphis, in her finest hour, altruistically offers herself as sacrifice that Israel may be free. Harvey was supremely moving in this most exposed aria, sometimes doubled only by the violins at pp. The soprano’s tone was limpid as mountain spring-water, and her many expressive messe di voce indicated that Iphis’s passion for Hamor had not simply evaporated.

Jephtha, however, remains in an agony of self-recrimination, and therefore his daughter’s offer of self-sacrifice only twists the knife “deeper, and deeper still . . .” The leader has what amounts to a mad scene. Murray convincingly skirted the edge of insanity, going jarringly “extra-tonal” on the word “madness.” In exhaustion he finishes, “I can no more,” another clear forebear to Elijah (“It is enough”). The Stygian mood is continued by the chorus “How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees, all hid from mortal sight!” Christophers and his musicians, emphasizing the abrupt and disjunct phrases, created the effect of people stumbling in the dark. It ended with obsessive-compulsive repetitions, as if trying to convince themselves, of “Yet on this maxim still obey, whatever is, is right.”

As Act Three commences, Jephtha remains mired in gloom in a recitativo accompagnato (“Hide thou thy hated beams, O sun, in clouds and darkness”) but in his aria begins to accept what he must (“Waft her, angels, through the skies”). Handel here created music of exceptional beauty and comfort, particularly for the archlute, played by Paula Chateauneuf who emerged from the continuo to add an exquisite embroidery. In addition to his elegant singing, Murray made the shift of mood credible. The ever-ascending melismata illustrated the text, and the creamy legato from all the musicians caressed.

Iphis has one final aria of farewell to the beauties of the earth, and Harvey was hardly less ravishing than in her previous scene. The chorus, though, taking no chances, offers a supplicating prayer asking for God to reveal his will, indeed hoping for another outcome. And in fact the orchestra once again dramatically changed the mood with a bustling, upbeat prelude to the arrival of the Angel.

As God’s mouthpiece, soprano Teresa Wakim had a convincingly celestial timbre and delivery, making what is certainly mixed news for Iphis and Hamor seem like entirely glad tidings. One could almost believe it when the lovers resigned their romantic feelings to heaven. Very soon, of course, they have the reinforcement of the rest of the solo quintet and, finally, the chorus of Israelites. The final chorus of praise, if not as monumental as Messiah’s “Amen,” has more musical interest—with two fugues—as it lifts the Angel back to heaven and caps Handel’s swan song.

I extend my thanks to the Handel and Haydn Society, Harry Christophers, and these fine soloists for being such superb guides to a wonderful musical discovery for me and many others, I’m sure. If the word-of-mouth about these concerts is what I imagine, I can’t envision any more (former) Red Sox-style, decades-long droughts before the next performance.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.

3 Comments

  1. Yes, the performance was thrilling. The expressive variations between the singers, and within the parts for each singer, were especially striking. It was even more wonderful at the 2nd performance, on Sunday.

    Comment by LoisL — May 7, 2013 at 10:04 am

  2. Joule Harvey’s voice was appallingly beautiful. I was seated about thirty feet from her, and my response was one I can only describe as awe, in the old-fashioned Old Testament sense. It wasn’t what I would call expressive (not that there was much to express in the execrable libretto), or even human; a listener in another room might have thought he or she was hearing some strange, wonderful alien instrument. The extremity was reached in the first-act duet with Hamor, sung by the countertenor William Purefoy, in which these two otherwordly voices, one of them painfully beautiful, twined around each other with supernatural cleverness and grace, with brief moments where they intersected and resonated in a state of rapture.

    The libretto, which I often found myself wishing was in another language, one I did not understand, is by the Reverend Thomas Morell, a “Greek scholar”, and displays all the nuance and lyrical facility one would expect of a Greek-speaking clergyman. One would have thought that an eighteenth-century Anglican minister would have regarded rewriting scripture as a fearsome offense, but the Rev. Morell apparently felt no such qualms. The result is that the closest thing the Bible contains to genuine tragedy is transformed into a Sunday-school cautionary tale. Apparently this particular bit of revisionism was popular at the time, cravenly justified by a quibble about a syllable. It is not too surprising; this was an age that preferred Nahum Tate’s revision of King Lear, in which Lear and Cordelia live happily ever after. Morell provides such immortal lines as Jeptha’s cry on attaining the Judgeship, that “goodness will make me great,” not exactly tragic-hero stuff (though it is repeated, tragically, about two hundred times), and the chorus’ response to the shocking reversal when Jeptha’s rash vow is revealed: after hemming and hawing for a bit, it decides that, God being God and all, “whatever is, is right !” It is so confident in this barbarous sentiment that it repeats it with growing emphasis until the point cannot be mistaken.

    The music, however is by Handel. Some of the huge contrapuntal choruses are glorious, especially if you ignore what they are about, and the arias could melt a heart of stone, or even, possibly, of a critic.

    Comment by SamW — May 9, 2013 at 9:06 am

  3. Edit: Joélle, not Joule. I did not mean to suggest that she was a spirit of pure energy, though she sounded like one.

    Comment by SamW — May 9, 2013 at 9:50 am

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