PROMS Handel's Jephtha Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3

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The Independent Culture
Handel's oratorio Jephtha is respectably Bible-based. But, interestingly, the Old Testament story had to be altered to make it palatable to decent 18th-century Christian ears. Similar legends can be found in many of the world's older cultures: the warrior vows that, if he is successful in battle, he will sacrifice to God (or the gods) the first living creature he meets on his return. Unfortunately it turns out to be his own child. In the Bible, Jephtha's daughter is allowed two months to "mourn her virginity", and then the grisly promise is fulfilled. In Thomas Morell's libretto, written for Handel, a happy - or happier -ending is skilfully engineered. An Angel announces that God could hardly expect his people to go against his own commandments. Jephtha's daughter (Iphis) need not die, she must simply remain a virgin for the rest of her life - not quite so happy for her, or for her valiant lover Hamor, who has been "panting for bliss in vain" since the beginning of Part 1.

Still, every stage of the story drew wonderful music from Handel, and Jephtha as a whole has a gripping dramatic pace. The end of Part 2, where Iphis learns of her impending death, is exceptionally poignant even by Handel's standards. No matter that her aria "Happy they: this vital breath..." is more or less lifted from the opera Ariodante; its spare, resigned textures make the point very effectively. In the following chorus, Handel even seems to comment ironically on the text: the concluding maxim, "Whatever is, is right", is delivered again and again with brutal rigidity - as though, by repeating it, the singers could make themselves believe it.

It is a measure of Handel's skill and power that Jephtha could leave such an impression in what was, all things considered, a good-ish rather than a great performance. At first, Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Jephtha) and Alastair Miles (Zebul) seemed to be singing into their scores rather than to the audience. Things improved later, and Rolfe Johnson at last rose to the occasion in the Part 3 aria "Waft her angels". But the first sign of real animation was Felicity Palmer's "Scenes of horror", in which Jephtha's wife Storge senses the tragedy to come. Michael Chance as Hamor appeared involved from the beginning, as did Joan Rogers as Iphis, whether bubbling over with "rapt'rous joy", or coldly "sinking in the arms of death". Deborah York made a lovely Angel, her voice a good deal more persuasive at this point than the libretto's arguments.

Neither the choir of The New Company nor the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were exactly disappointing. Sir Charles Mackerras's direction kept them on their collective toes well enough. But the choral singing was solid and efficient rather than spine-chilling. The Orchestra mixed old instruments (flute, trumpet, drums) with modern strings, played in approximately period style. But the sound of modern strings as it were "playing down" is far less powerful in effect than 18th-century instruments played for all they're worth. It's rather like watching a sumo wrestler trying to dance on points. Why bother? That's not what he was made for.

In the end, this Jephtha did Handel no serious disservice but, yes, there were heights unscaled, and depths only intermittently plumbed.

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