Concert Review: Boston Baroque’s “Jephtha” — The Fate of Youth

By Susan Miron

Music Director Martin Pearlman had the excellent idea to cut out 6 of the 24 arias to make Jephtha move along, and it paid off.

Boston Baroque performing ” Jephtha.” Photo: courtesy of the artist.

By the time George Frederic Handel composed Jephtha, his last major choral work, he had completed almost 30 oratorios and more than 40 operas. Penned when the composer (1685-1759) was going completely blind, the piece examines the inscrutable role of the Divine in human affairs. The horrific tale of Jephtha is in the Old Testament, Chapter 11 of  the Book of Judges. Handel imbues the oratorio with darkness from its opening chords, rarely letting up. Yes, the composer and his librettist Rev. Thomas Morrell (who also wrote Handel’s Theodora) soften the original’s tragic ending. But the murky chiaroscuro of  the story has already worked its way deep into listeners’ hearts. “How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees,” the chorus proclaims, sounding like a woeful Greek chorus.

Those familiar with Greek tragedy will sense resonances with the Bible’s Jephtha, who swears to God that he will sacrifice the first living thing he sees upon returning, presumably victorious, from battle. (Parallels with Euripides’ Iphegenia in Aulis, in which Iphigenia is sacrificed by Agamemnon, her father, to please the gods before the Trojan war, are obvious.) His daughter is nameless, like so many women in the Bible, but in Jephtha she is called Iphis, and she (you guessed it) is the first thing her father sees upon his return. However, Handel and his librettist send down an angel ex-machina at the last moment to save Iphis’s  life, although the girl must separate from her adoring admirer Hamor and from then on live a life of chastity.

Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque‘s (mostly) strings presented the rarely performed Jephtha last weekend (I saw it on Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall). My middle-aged ears continue to have trouble adjusting to the raspy sound of string period instruments, so I am the wrong person to comment on the quality of their sound. Despite containing a number of local string stars, the orchestra struck me as ropy-sounding. Keyboardist Peter Sykes was excellent, and the duet between the flutist and superb concertmaster Christina Day Martinson in the Act 1, Scene 2 was enchanting. The engaging pre-concert lecturer was Dr. Laura Pritchard. Music Director Martin Pearlman had the excellent idea to cut out 6 of the 24 arias to make Jephtha move along, and it paid off.

Boston Baroque performing “Jephtha.” Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Fate, particularly the fate of Iphis, hangs over the entire two and a half hours. ” It must be so,” Jephtha admits once he realizes his horrific mistake: “Heaven heard my thoughts and wrote them down. It must be so… So dear a child, doom’d by a father.” The crux of Handel’s oratorio is submission to the inevitable or, as the closing chorus of Act 2 puts it, “Whatever is, is right.” (Originally “What God ordains is right.”) In the Bible, Iphis is given two months grace before she is sacrificed. Handel’s Angel is given gorgeous music to sing (her beatific voice is one of the show’s highlights), but the tacked-on rescue doesn’t really ring true, dramatically speaking. As the Angel, the superb Sonja DuToit Tengblad is given a brief role, but the immediacy of her beautiful voice left a lasting impression. (It was also striking that she sang from memory.)

Tenor Nicholas Phan is the only performer here that I was really familiar with. I have most of his CDs, and hear him every time I can when he’s in town — his voice, at this point, has all the comforts of home (metaphorically speaking, not my noisy domicile). He is a very good actor and, having recorded much of Britten, he sings in English with eloquence. (When Phan performs, I can put the text down and understand absolutely everything — a high compliment.) In this production he sang with great beauty and tenderness; his Jephtha starts off as a noble commander and morphed into a memorable portrait of spiritual disintegration — his fatal vow and bravado end up destroying his world. The chorus, particularly the bass section, was compelling throughout.

The score was begun just before Handel’s 66th birthday  — a considerable age in the 18th century (Bach, like Handel, was born in 1685, but died the year before Jephtha was written.) His eyesight failing, the composer must have known he had only a limited time left to put pen to paper. Fate, mourning, and pain infuse the oratorio. It’s opening words, “It must be so,” are sung magnificently by the bass-baritone Dashon Burton as Zebul, “or the Ammonites, our lordly tyrants these eighteen years, will crush the race of Israel.” Much of the resulting sorrow is embedded in the words of Storgé (the mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero), part-lioness, part Iphis’s broken mother. Already, in Act 1, she has forebodings: “Some dire event hangs oe’r our heads, some woeful song we have to sing in misery extreme. O never, never was my foreboding mind distressed before with such incessant pangs.” (Little did she foresee an improbable angel coming to the rescue.) The fine soprano Ava Pine was the sweet-voiced Iphis; Randall Scotting, as her amorous Hamor, dominated the proceedings whenever he let his magnificent countertenor loose. Their impassioned Act 1 duet resonated throughout the evening, an indelible reminder that the casualty of Jephtha’s catastrophic bargain is the promise of this young couple.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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