Sometimes the price of peace is war, but the price of war is always ruinous. Claus Guth’s pessimistic new staging of Handel’s last oratorio, Jephtha, illustrates this with scenes of military carnage clad in smoky darkness. However, Guth is probably less interested in such overarching conclusions than in the destructive collision of public ambition and private life. Jephtha is a figure from the Old Testament, an illegitimate son of a prominent father and a prostitute, who is exiled by his half-brothers. Invited to lead the Israelites against the Ammonites in battle, and longing for glory and status, Jephtha makes a vow to make a burnt offering of the first living thing that comes out of his door on his victorious return. His only daughter is the first to greet him. In the Book of Judges Jephtha honours his vow, but in Thomas Morell’s libretto an angel stays his hand. Iphis is spared by taking a holy vow of chastity. 

With spare but potent imagery and cogent storytelling, Guth works up to the harrowing climax, a clinically choreographed ritual sacrifice, and the unhappy ending. Jephtha’s thirst for military success strews the stage with bodies and ultimately alienates him from everyone. Iphis’ imposed maidenhood is a burden she is unable to bear. Helpless in the hands of fate, or God, the characters are dwarfed by giant letters spelling the imperative opening words of the text, “It must be so”. Symbols of impending doom permeate the stage, springing from the premonitions of Storgè, Jephtha’s wife: brewing clouds, rapacious crows, and, for once, highly effective use of singer doubles, one mirroring an unsuspecting Iphis with her future self, severed at the neck. Interpolated electronic sound effects, invoking metal slicing through air and crashing echoes, thicken the dark, savage atmosphere.

In the pit, the marvellous Concerto Köln gave a performance honed to burnished perfection. Handel adept Ivor Bolton avoided excesses of tempo and volume and led a beautifully articulated performance, although his communication with the singers was not always clear. With the Dutch National Opera Chorus in glorious form, the choral ensembles surged with concentrated intensity. Sommer Ulrickson’s stylised choreography is conventional but efficaciously moulds the chorus into a crowd that reacts or complies. In the Act II finale, “How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees”, the chorus enters carrying chairs, a common staging trope, but, in a surprise twist, during Handel’s emphatic setting of Alexander Pope’s maxim “Whatever is, is right”, they sit on the chairs in a regimented sequence to form a rigid-backed church congregation.

The six soloists brought rich and varied assets. Silvery of tone, soprano Ana Quintans was an excellent Angel in her one finely chiselled aria. Bass-baritone Florian Boesch was Zebul, Jephtha’s half-brother, a chain-smoking leader in crisis. He has no choice but to ask Jephtha and his fierce, ragtag army for help. Boesch was directed to sing his arias as fits of impotent rage, trading in tonal beauty for dramatic bluster. Alto Wiebke Lehmkuhl had a suitably dark timbre for Storgè, and the required agility for her arias, but needed more clarity of text and intent. Top-flight singing came from Anna Prohaska as Iphis and countertenor Bejun Mehta as her beloved, Hamor. Their penetrant voices blended gorgeously. As actors they conveyed an unfettered joy in each other’s physicality, making Iphis’ enforced virginity all the more tragic. Prohaska employed her bell-like soprano with complete stylistic mastery. Mehta sang breathtakingly, pouring out caramel swirls of coloratura. He cut a figure of indescribable pity as a combat-damaged soldier, reliving his trauma during his victory aria “Up the dreadful steep ascending”, and offering to be sacrificed instead of Iphis in a suicide bid.

Richard Croft gave a complex and increasingly heartbreaking portrayal of the title role. During the first two acts, he sang his arias competently but without much vocal allure. His recitatives, beautifully acted and clearly enunciated, were much stronger. In Act III, where tender ariosos such as “Waft her, angels, through the skies” replace war-like coloratura arias, Croft’s singing was of a nobler metal, his tender legato exposing the fragility of a man at breaking point. Guth also matched the deepening tragedy of Handel’s music in the final act, in which he consolidated his poetic visual language. Having dressed and garlanded herself earlier “like a stately bride” to welcome her conquering father, now on her way to be slaughtered, Iphis dances with him as if at her wedding – an incredibly touching scene. Zebul’s royal banquet table from the opening scene reappears as her sacrificial altar, and the mountains of Gilead return to recall her embattled father to exile. It is such stark and striking imagery that make this retelling so powerful. And what you hear is as stirring as what you see.