By James L. Paulk
PARIS – Jephtha was Handel’s final oratorio, and there are serious fans who rank it as his most beautiful work. The performance of a new staged production by the Opéra de Paris, which opened at the Palais Garnier on Jan. 13, certainly made these sentiments understandable. In the pit, replacing the company’s regular orchestra, was the beloved period instrument ensemble Les Arts Florissants, led by its iconic founder, William Christie. The distinguished British tenor Ian Bostridge headed a fine cast. And the production was the work of the imaginative, if controversial, German director Claus Guth.
It has become almost customary to stage Handel’s oratorios, essentially turning them into operas. It makes sense, actually. With Handel, the major differences between the two are the subject matter (the oratorios are invariably Biblical) and the treatment of the chorus, used more extensively in the oratorios, playing the role of a Greek dramatic chorus. Staging does, however, have the potential to substantially change the entire experience, and that is definitely what happened here.
Whereas Guth’s La bohème, presented in December by the Opéra de Paris, was set scandalously in a space station in the distant future, his Jephtha is situated on terra firma, but with a strong expressionist edge and an abundance of symbolism. A co-production with the Dutch National Opera, it was seen there in November with totally different musical forces.
Jephtha’s libretto, by Thomas Morell, is based on the story in Judges 11, where the exiled warrior Jephtha is recalled to lead the Israelites against the Ammonites. Before the battle, he vows to God that if he is successful, he will sacrifice whatever comes out of the door to meet him on his return home. This turns out to be his only child, his beloved daughter Iphis, and in the Biblical version he “did with her according to his vow.” Morell decided to “correct” the Bible, and in the oratorio, an angel appears at the last minute, sparing Iphis under the condition that she remain a virgin for the rest of her life – a resolution more like that of Abraham and Isaac and, incidentally, a foreshadowing of Mozart’s Idomeneo.
The oratorio opens with the words “It must be so,” and Guth brings this simple phrase to the stage repeatedly in giant, movable letters, underscoring the fatal hand of destiny. But the opera is staged as a cosmic battle between blind acceptance of fate and the urge to resist it. So the words are sometimes deconstructed and the letters rearranged to change their meaning.
For example, for the duet between Iphis and Hamor, her fiancé and Jephtha’s loyal lieutenant, the letters spell “BE,” perhaps suggesting the transcendent power of love which exists only in the present. Anti-war images emerge all evening. When Jephtha, meeting with his half-brother King Zebul, agrees to go into battle, the table begins to drip blood.
Jephtha may be Handel’s least optimistic oratorio, owing both to the subject but also, possibly, because he was rapidly going blind. Still, Guth’s dark vision contrasts ironically with much of the score. Storgé, Jephtha’s wife, is something of a Cassandra figure in the oratorio, and Guth underlines both her pessimism and her prescience by surrounding her with ravens and placing her in a strangely lit garden, or by having a cloud descend from above her. Iphis gets a doppelganger with a slashed throat when she sings with her father. Jeptha and Hamor return from battle to celebratory music. But the stage is filled with bodies, and the heroes’ clothes are filthy and bloody. Hamor’s demeanor suggests post-traumatic stress disorder.
Guth’s staging amplifies the sense of inevitable doom as the music races to the climactic scene when the victorious Jephtha opens the door and realizes he is being greeted by his daughter, at which point the music suddenly stops.
But it is with the finale that Guth departs most crucially from the oratorio’s original design. The same priests who were preparing Iphis for execution (strapping her to a table) now brutally cut her hair and deliver her to a cell, parodying the initiation of a nun. She appears to have lost her mind. Hamor, wounded in battle and having lost his bride-to-be, is dying. Jephtha, victorious in battle and having been crowned king, is nevertheless portrayed as a defeated man. All of this plays out, to great irony, against music of sublime joy. But, in testament to Guth’s skill, it is this very irony that gives this production its singular dramatic edge.
To separate the scenes, and for sound effects at moments of crisis, Guth makes use of a prepared piano, the dissonance reinforcing the edgy contrasts onstage.
The sets, by Katrin Lea Tag, who also designed the modern-day costumes, were black and gray, their bleakness supplanted by occasional bursts of color when, for example, the Angel appeared.
Bostridge portrayed Jephtha with striking intensity, twisting his face and body dramatically. A riveting figure, he has the face of David Bowie, the body of a dancer, and the refined voice of Peter Pears at his best. He commands the stage like few singers alive. His diction is exemplary, as is his coloratura, and his top notes are pure. The ruthless warrior of the first two acts became a broken man when greeted by his daughter. His “Waft her, angels,” sung as he prepares to kill his daughter, was a tour de force and a display of vocal beauty.
Katherine Watson sang the role of Iphis with a high soprano of great beauty. Her rendition of “Happy they!” was quite moving. As her fiancé, Hamor, counter-tenor Tim Mead was a dynamic presence, a warrior with a powerful, flexible voice.
Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux was especially moving as Storgé, with a strong voice and piercing dramatic skill. Another Canadian, bass-baritone Philippe Sly, portrayed King Zebul with power and noble bearing. Counter-tenor Valer Sabadus, who appeared as the Angel, was less successful, virtually inaudible in the lower register.
If Guth took a secular and modern approach to Jephtha, Christie, his musicians, and his chorus failed to get the message: Firmly rooted in the practices of another era, they are an angelic choir and a celestial orchestra.
The chorus plays a big role in Jephtha, and the choristers of Les Arts Florissants sang with a gloriously articulate, transparent sound, dramatically commenting on the action. Christie took everything at pretty much the same volume, but with rapidly changing tempos, to the point that there were a few coordination problems between chorus and orchestra. But the orchestra played with a precision remarkable for a period ensemble, especially in its pure string tone.
At the opening night curtain, the boos of the philistines were quickly overpowered by sustained rhythmic clapping. “It must be so” might easily be the motto of the literalists who despair at modern “concept” productions. But perhaps, just as Rev. Morell saw fit to alter the Biblical story, both to make it more dramatic and to fit the theology of his era, Guth’s re-imagining of Jephtha serves to bring it alive, adding layers of meaning for the modern audience. And for those who disagree, there’s still that amazing score, performed by some of the finest musicians on the planet.
Performances of Jephtha will continue until Jan. 30. Ticket information is available at Opéra de Paris.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.