Jephtha, Opera at Iford

HANDEL opera is perfect in scale for the intimate confines of the cloister at Iford, surely the most beautiful setting for “country house opera” in the world on a night such as Tuesday 25th July 2017.

This year’s festival opera comes to an end with Timothy Nelson’s production of Jephtha, the harrowing story of the biblical king who asked for his god’s assistance in battle, and promised that, if he was successful, he would sacrifice the first thing he saw on his return to his country. Sadly for him, it wasn’t a rabbit or an ox, but his beloved daughter Iphis.

Handel’s 1751 oratorio is chiefly known for its two tenor arias, the beautiful Waft Her, Angels, through the skies and the dramatic Deeper and Deeper Still. It also has choruses of Israelites, priests and virgins.

Of course, Iford has no space for big choruses, so the production depends on a carefully chosen cast of 11, five of whom sing the principal roles. The other six are members of the festival’s New Generation Art­ists programme.

Let me start by saying that the singing is magnificent, and the performances have an intensity that makes watching sometimes seem voyeuristic. Christopher Buck­nall’s Contraband provides perfect accompaniment to the plangent, terrifying and indelibly moving story.

I only wish I could heap praise on the direction and the design, which is so full of ideas and movement that it almost obscures the performances. It’s a huge tribute to the singers that they prevail.

In an effort to make the opera “relevant” to a contemporary audience, Mr Nelson has updated it, with horrible 60s light fittings turning on and off at incomprehensible moments, white shirts to show off fake blood at the wrists, an imposed “shard of glass” theme that strained patience … etc

He has also “enhanced” the drama by having poor old Jephtha blinding himself (shards of glass) and stumbling around like Gloucester at the end. The voice of God in Handel’s original is transformed into a jealous sister of Iphis, in love with her sister’s suitor Hamor – she has cut her wrists at the start of the opera, and ends up using an epileptic fit to “pardon” her sister at the same time as sentencing her to a life of virginity.

All this comes with a mesmerisingly puzzling use of ritual movement, effective in the terrifying Whatever is, is right. Part­icularly annoying are the endless covering and uncovering of stained glass windows littered around the stage, the singing about swords while holding machine guns and so much imposed drama that the denouement only achieves its impact thanks to the voices of the performers.

In these days of genuine terror, when Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a best-seller again, I waited for someone to sing “Under His Eye” in The House of Gilead chorus.

The splendid individual performances are led by Marianna Vidal’s astonishing Storge, with Frederick Long making a welcome return after his impressive Shaunard in Boheme at the start of the season, and the Iphis of Lucy Page, destined  to a life of imprisonment no matter what the outcome. Christopher Turner is a powerful Jephtha and Charlotte La Thorpe manages the peculiar “angel” with conviction.

Jephtha continues on 28th and 29th July, and on 1st and 2nd August. The singing and the performances are well worth the journey, and a few tickets are available.


Photographs by Mitzi de Margary

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