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.