By Richard P. Townsend
George Frideric Handel’s operas, instrumental music, and oratorios together form one of the pinnacles of Western culture. They are among—along with that of J.S. Bach, Franz Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—the highest musical expressions of the 18th century. But Handel’s music lives on especially because it marries elegance and virtuosic composition to deep humanity and psychological insight. Handel’s very last oratorio—Jeptha—received a rare outing at Disney Hall, Los Angeles, on the 30th April with Boston’s venerable Handel and Haydn Society.
Jeptha, composed in 1751 and premiered at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in February 1752, is in effect Handel’s last music, although he died eight years later. Composed in failing health, as Handel began to write the chorus which comes mid-way, “How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees! All hid from mortal sight!” he noted in the score “Reached here on 13 Febr. 1751, unable to go on… .” Poignantly soon afterward, he was completely blind. Based on a libretto by the Rev. Thomas Morell and drawn from the Book of Judges with interpolated texts from Pope and Milton, the story is a rather dire one. The Israelite military leader Jeptha is preparing to battle the Ammonites and vows to God that given victory, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees upon returning home. Well, unfortunately, that first thing seen is his daughter Iphis. She is saved in Act III when an angel announces that Iphis—rather than becoming a burnt offering— must remain a virgin, dedicated to God’s service the rest of her life. The actual story in Judges is less sanguine (no pun intended)—Jeptha’s daughter may have in fact been sacrificed.
As a consequence, this last epic work from Handel’s pen is spare and grave, lengthy and enlivened with fewer show-stopping arias and choruses than usual. Add to that the Georgian England that its stately cadences and sonorities conjure up, and one can imagine that any performance needs to work extremely hard to keep today’s audience engaged. Regrettably, the Handel and Haydn Society’s effort, while earnest, didn’t quite succeed.
In point of comparison, the LA Philharmonic’s Baroque Variations series has brought us many superb groups and performances over the past several years. I recall an effulgent Messiah with Bernard Labadie and his Les Violons du Roi and La Chapelle de Québec and soloist David Daniels; a magisterial Dido and Aeneas with Susan Graham and the Philharmonia Baroque; and an English Concert all-Purcell performance with Andreas Scholl conducted by Harry Bicket that was, in short, perfection. So the Handel & Haydn Society not only had to deliver the expected historically informed performance which is by now commonplace, but then meet the very high bar of those who proceeded. The H&H—as Bostonians call it—is the oldest performing arts group in this country—founded when the young republic and the music H&H performs—was young, in 1815. The Society gave the American premieres of such works as Messiah, Bach’s Matthew Passion and Verdi’s Requiem. More recently, they shifted to period instrument performance under the legendary Christopher Hogwood, and continue it under current music director Harry Christophers, whose work in Britain is well respected (for example, his group The Sixteen). I found Christophers’ conducting style curious—more performance art, walking around and gesturing—than musical (such as a Harry Bicket or a Nicholas McGegan who conduct from a harpsichord). That said, it’s quite clear that he prepared his orchestra well; they performed impeccably.
Doubtless in an effort to keep the audience engaged, Christophers made substantial cuts in the score, especially in the final scene and the reordering of some choruses. This alone isn’t as outrageous as it sounds. Handel himself was wont to re-organize, interpolate and appropriate music—his own and that of others—to customize performances of his work.
Frankly, my overall impression of the performance was more of a polite, Sunday afternoon outing of an oratorio society’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah, such as I was accustomed to growing up in the Midwest in the 1970s. Perhaps it was the unevenness of the soloists, or that Christophers aimed for such a restrained performance. In any event, the concert only ignited when the brilliant soprano soloist Joélle Harvey—a native upstate New Yorker who is performing all the right roles with all the right groups such as Glyndebourne and The English Concert—sang as Iphis, Jeptha’s daughter. She was ably joined by William Purefoy, counter-tenor, who sang the role of her beloved Hamor. Their duet “These labors past, how happy we” was exquisite, the two mirroring and weaving around each other’s coloratura runs. Harvey’s bright soprano is perfectly suited to Handel’s music. She possesses purity of tone and laser-focused top notes. In Iphis’ aria “The smiling dawn of happy days,” Harvey’s ornamentation was tasteful and her period performance-informed singing was much in evidence, with her swelling and shaping the notes like fine pearls.
The Jeptha, Robert Murray, had his moments and he acquitted himself well in the ethereal “Waft her, angels, through the skies” but was generally understated throughout. The other soloists were adequate. The chorus on the other hand was strong with excellent musicality and diction and was particularly good in the barn-burner, “When His loud voice in thunder spoke.”
In March I was at Disney Hall to hear John Adams’ newest work, the opera-oratorio The Gospel according to the Other Mary. It was profoundly moving to experience it in relation to Handel’s last work, Jeptha. performed only weeks later. While they couldn’t be more different, they share roots in the theatre while treating the Biblical material in a humanistic fashion. This truly revealed the extent to which Adams’ work really goes to the heart of the origins of the art form of the oratorio. At the same time, Sellars’ direction plumbs the depths of ancient rhetoric and gesture, just as Handel deploys his chorus like that in classical Greek drama. While the Handel and Haydn Society gave a most welcome performance of Handel’s last oratorio, it remained—in contrast to Adams’ new work—a traditional rendition. It only truly “wafted…through the skies” and revealed Handel’s innovatory spirit when soloists Harvey and Purefoy, aided by the excellent period-instrument orchestra and talented chorus, took over.