The last oratorio written by Handel is based on a biblical story. Jephtha is a Jewish general fighting against the Ammonites. He makes a solemn vow to God that, if he is granted victory, he will sacrifice to God the first creature he sees when he comes home from battle. After his victory, his only daughter (Iphis) greets him at the door, so she must be sacrificed. In the Bible, Jephtha kills her to keep his word; in Handel's oratorio, an angel stops Jephtha at the last moment. His daughter will live and dedicate her life to God.

Ian Bostridge (Jephtha) and Katherine Watson (Iphis) © Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris
Ian Bostridge (Jephtha) and Katherine Watson (Iphis)
© Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris

Claus Guth's production was very simple, yet effective. One of the main ideas of the production was the embodiment of the words "It must be so", which became almost another character on stage: at times the words formed the sentence, at times the letters scattered and formed anagrams. This set the tragedy as inevitable from the very beginning and added to the sense of doom before the dreadful development of the plot. Another successful idea was the depiction of the warriors, Jephtha and Hamor (Iphis' fiancé), who return victorious to martial, glorious, happy music. But the director tells another story. They are both dishevelled, dirty and bloody, clearly in shock. Hamor recalls events from the battle (seen as flashes on stage). In modern terms, we would describe him as suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ian Bostridge (Jephtha) © Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris
Ian Bostridge (Jephtha)
© Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants represent a touchstone in this repertoire, and they lived up to their status. Their performance showed great precision and a continuous sense of drive, beautiful sound in the strings, and powerful excitement during the choruses. The oratorio is punctuated by many choral interventions, and Les Arts Florissants' choir was one of the biggest stars of the evening with their consistently full and beautiful sound and impeccable precision. They became another character, commenting on events, supporting the characters. They also showed impressive acting abilities: they were constantly called upon to participate in the action, and they responded with skill and professionalism. On one occasion, the production required the choir to sing offstage. In this case, Guth's (or Christie's?) choice was to have the choir in the orchestra pit, one I hope other productions will consider as this solution fit the director's view without compromising the musical experience.

Tim Mead (Hamor) © Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris
Tim Mead (Hamor)
© Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris

Ian Bostridge, in his debut as Jephtha, emphasized the fanatic, harsh side of the Jewish general, his acting and singing often rough or aloof. He only unleashed his lyrical potential in a moving, sweet interpretation of "Waft her, angels". His delivery was beautifully based on the words, his enunciation, in his mother tongue, communicative and effective. The coloratura was fast and the voice easy and beautiful on top, losing some strength occasionally in the many middle-range passages.

Tim Mead also had a successful debut as Hamor, the warrior in love with Jephtha's daughter. His countertenor resonated, smooth and round, without any acidity or harsh edge, displaying a remarkable uniformity over the entire range. His coloratura in the great aria "Up the dreadful steep ascending" was explosive and exciting, his farewell to Iphis, moving and tender.

Katherine Watson (Iphis) and Ian Bostridge (Jephtha) © Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris
Katherine Watson (Iphis) and Ian Bostridge (Jephtha)
© Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris

The third debut of the evening was Katherine Watson as Iphis, Jephtha's daughter. The character is devoid of any agency, literally described as a prize for Hamor's valour in battle. She immediately bows to her father's will, accepting her fate as a victim. Watson's high, clear soprano was well suited to the character, and her interpretation of "Happy they!" (an aria borrowed from Ariodante) was particularly poignant.

Storgé, Iphis' mother, was Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Her character was depicted as an outsider; she was barefoot, adorned in talismans, and had prescient visions. Lemieux gave us a heartfelt interpretation, showing a total commitment to the character. Her acting and desperation seemed exaggerated at the beginning, but turned out to be prophetic at the end. Her "Scenes of horror" gave me goosebumps.

Philippe Sly was a noble, strong Zebul, his deep baritone very well suited to the part. The cast was completed by Valer Sabadus as the Angel; his voice was clear and beautiful in the upper register, losing projection as it moved down, which was fitting for an angel from the heavens, perhaps.

Ian Bostridge (Jephtha) and Valer Sabadus (Angel) © Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris
Ian Bostridge (Jephtha) and Valer Sabadus (Angel)
© Monika Rittershaus | Opéra national de Paris

But in Guth's vision, the angel does not bring divine grace. Storgé does not forgive her murderous fanatic husband, Hamor dies of his wounds from the battle, and Iphis, her hair cut like a nun, sits on a bed, completely deranged, plucking feathers from a pillow. The trauma is not overcome, there is no salvation. Meanwhile, the choir sings 'Hallelujah!".

****1