Handel and Haydn Society brings biblical fervor to Handel’s “Jephtha”

May 4, 2013 at 12:52 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

“Jeptha’s Daughter” by Walter Duncan.

The last time the Handel and Haydn Society performed Jephtha, memories of the Civil War were still fresh in listeners’ minds.

“It’s long overdue,” Harry Christophers told the packed audience in Symphony Hall Friday night before leading the H&H chorus and orchestra in a vivid reading of Handel’s dramatic final oratorio, the ensemble’s first Jeptha performance since 1867.

The work’s biblical story is one of faith and acceptance, and, moreover, a tale of irreversible fate, where innocents suffer due to a foolish vow made by a triumphant warrior. Jephtha, son of a harlot, was exiled from his homeland by his own kin. But many years later, his brother Zebul asks him to lead the Israelites against an invading army. Jephtha accepts, and as a covenant to God, offers as a blood sacrifice the first person he sees after his victory. He is heartbroken, then, when his daughter Iphis greets him on his return home. But Jephtha, proud and faithful to the end, must carry out his promise despite protests from his family. “Whatever is, is right,” the chorus intones in mournful acceptance.

Thomas Morell’s libretto, though, changes the biblical story to offer a happy, if decidedly contrived, ending. Before Jephtha commences the sacrifice, an Angel appears to alter Iphis’ fate. She need not die, the Angel says. Instead, as service to the Lord, Iphis must remain a virgin for the rest of her life, a charge both Iphis and her fiancé Hamor gladly accept.

Jephtha contains much attractive music with Handel’s score running the gamut from colorful vocal writing, sorrowful choruses, and fiery, thunderous orchestration.

Fresh from their California tour, the H&H forces rendered all with aplomb. Christophers, in graceful, sweeping gestures, commanded a lovely musical flow and shapely phrases from the musicians. The H&H chorus’ singing sparkled with clear diction and rich ensemble sound. And the oratorio showcased some of the finest and most precise playing from the period-instrument orchestra heard all season.

Equally superb performances rang from the soloists. Tenor Robert Murray proved a lyrical and dynamic Jephtha. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, as his wife Storgé, performed with plummy and plush tone. Soprano Joélle Harvey was a supple and elegant presence as the ill-fated Iphis.

As Hamor, William Purefoy sang with a crystalline and lyrical countertenor, especially in his upper register. Baritone Woodrow Bynum boomed as a commanding, even heroic Zebul. And Teresa Wakim, appearing late in the oratorio as the Angel, gleamed in her sole aria, “Happy, Iphis thou shalt live.”

In works such as Jephtha, the story often plays mistress to the music. But here, the cast’s evocative singing kept the drama palpable. Murray offered an especially anguished performance in the second-act aria “Open the marble jaws, O tomb.” Wyn-Rogers answered with a sweetly aching “First perish thou.” Harvey and Purefoy traded affectionate glances in their warm and silky first-act duet, “These labors past, how happy we!” Even the H&H chorus gave a chilling reading of the second act’s closing chorus, “How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees.”

With such a definitive performance, one hopes that H&H will not wait another 150 years to return to Jephtha.

Jephtha will repeat 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. handelandhaydn.org.

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