Magazine article The Spectator

Power Play

Magazine article The Spectator

Power Play

Article excerpt


Power play


English National Opera

The distinction between operas and oratorios in Handel's output is to a large degree an academic affair, depending on such contingencies as whether a work could be staged at a certain point in the ecclesiastical calendar. Glyndebourne showed that Theodora, an oratorio, could be staged with spectacular success, thanks to Peter Sellars's intermittent genius. A couple of years ago, Welsh National Opera mounted Jephtha, Theodora's immediate successor, to great acclaim, and that production, by Katie Mitchell, has now reached the Coliseum. If it hasn't been changed much, I am at a loss to understand why it made such a strong impression in Wales, for it seems to be fundamentally and pervasively flawed in both conception and execution.

The setting of the action is moved from the Middle East in 'biblical times' to nowhere in particular in Europe in the 1940s, in a shell-pocked hotel, with the inevitable distraught population rushing on carrying tattered suitcases (but hasn't that image had its day?), the women wearing those flyaway hats that instantly evoke the time. When Jephtha comes in in Part II and sings his victory aria 'His mighty arm, with sudden blow', it is as a press conference, with flashbulbs and thrust-in-the-face microphones. This is the context in which the hero promises the Lord that he will sacrifice the first thing or person that salutes his eyes - and of course it's his beloved daughter Iphis. Luckily, an angel, not impressively endowed in the wing department, forbids the priests to slaughter Iphis, as long as she remains for ever chaste. This is a pretty mysterious plot in any case, but how it is meant to be rendered either more intelligible or 'relevant' by updating remains a still greater puzzle.

Admittedly, this oratorio is the one where submission to the inscrutable will of the divine is most insisted upon, with an obedient chorus only too pleased to reassure God that his 'mercies still endure, ever faithful, ever sure'. Earlier we have the celebrated and insane dictum of Pope, 'Whatever is, is RIGHT,' set to strangely insistent and even strident music, only adding to the insult that is delivered to suffering creation, however moving it may be coming from a composer just experiencing the first symptoms of blindness, but moving only as a masochistic expression of the worship of power.

Given, then, the combination of uninterestingness and arbitrariness of the plot, the best thing is to concentrate on the considerable amount of impressive music that Jephtha contains. …

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