Life & Culture

Jephtha review: A night at the opera that I would like to forget

Allan Clayton has a magnificent tenor voice but it is simply not suited to Handel - one contributing factor that makes this production a big mistake


Royal Opera House | ★✩✩✩✩

It’s either brilliant or appalling timing for the Royal Opera. A story about the Israelites destroying their enemies with God’s help could have turned into a (probably) unwanted cause célèbre for the company.

The timing is, of course, entirely by chance. This staging of Handel’s oratorio Jephtha — his last large-scale work — was planned years ago.

For all that, as I prepared for the performance I expected to be struck by the many parallels between the oratorio and the current war with Hamas and to be able to bring you some telling insights into the enduring nature of biblical stories.

But director Oliver Mears has done everything possible to rid the production of all of that, moving it to somewhere around Handel’s own time and turning it into the story of a group of Puritans under the grip of Jephtha as a cult leader, with their Ammonite oppressors debauched aristocrats who seem to have wandered in from A Rake’s Progress.

But even though his staging was conceived before October 7, Mears was clearly alive to the sensitivities. During the Angel’s aria, “Rise, Jephtha, and ye rev’rend priests”, the word “holocaust” has been removed from the line, “Else had she fall’n an holocaust to God.”

There is, however, a bigger problem with the production than the absence of biblical parallels.

It is anaemic to the point of boredom. Jephtha is an oratorio not an opera, and while it is often possible to utilise the inherent drama in some works, there is nothing in Mears’ production that will convince anyone Jephtha is one such piece.

So much is about where and how. A version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion directed by Jonathan Miller and performed in Holy Trinity Church off Sloane Square is one of the highlights of my concert-going life.

The singers seemed not to be performing it so much as living it out, with the church itself as one of the key players. I then saw a version of the same production over a decade later at the National Theatre’s Olivier and it made watching paint seem like rip-roaring excitement.

Unfortunately, this production is much the same. The basic design doesn’t help, with that tired stage cliché of massive moving stone walls. When they part we do get to see vivid pictorial tableaux, such as the Rabelaisian depiction of the Ammonites, but they merely emphasise how dull everything else is.

The story, changed by Handel’s librettist from the biblical version, is simple. God will help Jephtha defeat the Ammonites on condition he sacrifices the first person he sees. It’s his daughter.

Cue meltdown as Jephtha insists on following through, to his followers’ horror. But it all turns out OK as an angel intervenes and says God will accept her instead agreeing to remain a virgin.

Mears, however, rewrites that rewritten ending by having Jephtha’s daughter refuse to accept this get-out clause and his followers turn on him and put him in prison. None of this is in the libretto. Indeed it involves the singers acting against the words they are singing, which is directorial madness.

Having the singers out of sync with what they are singing is somehow appropriate, however, for some of the worst professional choral singing I have ever heard. The Royal Opera chorus is usually one of its jewels, but it feels as if they are singing their parts for the first time.

They get ridiculously out of sync not just with the conductor but with each other. It was actually embarrassing.

Allan Clayton (Jephtha) has a magnificent tenor voice but it is simply not suited to Handel. The other soloists are decent enough, but the whole thing is a mistake. An evening to forget.

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