OPERA NEWS - Jephtha
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Netherlands Opera

In Review Amsterdam Jephtha hdl 217
Croft and Prohaska, Jephtha and Iphis in Amsterdam
© Monika Rittershaus

FOR HIS PRODUCTION of Handel’s final oratorio, Jephtha, at Netherlands Opera, director Claus Guth made some strikingly effective staging decisions, including a mimed “blackout scene” detailing Jephtha’s exile during the Prelude and having intermission fall just as the victorious warrior opens a door to see that the victim he promised to God is—his daughter Iphis. In collaboration with lighting designer Bernd Purkrabek and video designer Arian Andiel, Guth created memorable, evocative space and imagery, with a particularly stunning final tableau. (No happy ending followed this divine intervention.) On the other hand, Guth redeployed familiar techniques seen elsewhere—visual doublings, rowdy choral partying, slow-motion battles, shouting during the singing and (twice) the dropping of petals from the flies, which is the hoariest staging cliché of twenty-first-century opera. Most disturbing to me were the IRCAM-evoking electronic metal sound effects Guth often deployed to punctuate scenes, taking us right out of Handel’s sound world. (Call me old-fashioned, but there’s a score here, folks.) Perhaps before this coproduction transfers to Paris, Guth can tighten the first part to match the power of the second.

The musical performance was strong, though conductor Ivor Bolton’s occasionally heavy hand disallowed delicacy. Bolton elicited superb playing from the Concerto Köln; the company’s own chorus was strong but did not always achieve complete ensemble in the difficult fugues. In 2002, Richard Croft sang the Idomeneo-like title role beautifully under René Jacobs in an Alice Tully Hall concert. Fourteen years later—and after more than three decades onstage—Croft remains a fiercely dedicated actor and master of his ductile, musically incisive tenor. The miraculously blended “Waft her angels” and “For ever blessed” proved vocal and emotional highlights among many. 

Guth and Bejun Mehta—in excellent, flowing voice, with words wonderfully wedded to the musical line—made Iphis’s fiancé Hamor a complex character. Iphis and Hamor emerged as an unusually sensually attuned couple in their initial exchange of arias and the ecstatic duet “These labours past.” Hamor turned out, in the evening’s far better directed second half, to be suffering from PTSD. “Up the dreadful steep ascending” was played—grippingly—as battle flashbacks; at the end, Hamor grasped (as did we) that he was seriously wounded. After the wonderful, psychologically acute duet/quintet in which Hamor and Iphis generously renounce each other—their second thoughts trailing after them in one short, slowed pair of cadenzas—the shell-shocked, wounded veteran simply collapsed and died.

Two much-ballyhooed singers from famous Austrian musical families appeared. Anna Prohaska (Iphis) is a genuinely graceful, subtle actress; her musical instincts are excellent, and she made some ravishing sounds. But some kind of back-throat vocal production kept interfering with her projection, so that the tone would diminish before phrases ended. Having launched a brilliant “Tune the soft melodious lute,” Prohaska seriously overdecorated the da capo repeat, almost losing the melody. But her overall performance had considerable impact. Not so the Zebul of Prohaska’s countryman Florian Boesch, who was underpowered vocally, constantly aspirated coloratura and channeled ham-fisted Expressionist acting, as if at once playing Wozzeck and Dr. Schön. Wiebke Lehmkuhl, an old-style alto with a lovely tone, made an impassioned, dignified Storgè. Just as Jephtha prepared to slay Iphis, Ana Quintans (the Angel) emerged angrily from among the Israelite masses to deliver her deus ex machina recit—changing offstage to swan-like angel wings to sing her lone aria, beautifully but almost incomprehensibly. The collective community relief fell victim to slashing cuts: gone were the responding arias of Zebul, Storgè and—most damagingly—Hamor’s gorgeous “’Tis Heaven’s all-ruling pow’r” (which presumably wouldn’t have fit Guth’s concept of his role). In an odder cut, Bolton had Jephtha repeat Zebul’s post-battle recit (No. 28) rather than sing his own (No. 30) before the testing “His mighty arm,” which Croft dispensed masterfully.  —David Shengold 

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