One of the quintessential charms of Austria this time of year involves visiting one of the hundreds of festivals which pop up all over the countryside as spring gives way to summer. The larger venues need no introduction: Bregenz and Salzburg in particular are well-known and wonderfully impressive with their massive stages, countless personnel and picturesque trappings. There are, however, countless smaller festivals as well which often go unnoticed, but are at times well worth a visit. The Festival in Retz, Lower Austria is one of them. Only an hour outside of the Vienna by train or bus, Retz is not only in the heart of the Weinviertel and therefore one of the best places to raise a glass of Grüner Veltliner, but also boasts a small but impressive summer music festival including concerts and operatic productions. This summer they mounted a scenic version of Handel's dramatic oratorio Jephtha and confirmed once again that size and funding do not always correlate to quality. This production boasts all the charm of a small town, humble operation, but with world class execution.
Much of the credit for this goes must go to Monika Steiner, who has been responsible for staging the annual operatic offerings of the festival since 2006. Her take on Thomas Morrell’s libretto based on the biblical story is thought-provoking and timely, as well as provocatively underscored by Inge Stolterfoht’s simple but effective costumes. Likewise, hats off to musical director Ewald Donhoffer, who conducted both the excellent LABYRINTHvocalensemble and the wonderful Ensemble Continuum with effortless verve and capability. The ensemble was consistently strong, singing and playing precise, balance perfect, and the energy never flagged.
In the original story, Jephtha (here, the extraordinary tenor Daniel Johannsen) swears an oath to the heavens that if he is victorious in his battle with the Ammonites he will sacrifice the first person who greets him after battle. His faultless daughter, Iphis (ringing and rich soprano Bernarda Bobro), surprises him with song and dance upon his return and must therefore be sacrificed despite the protests of his brother (beautiful baritone Günter Haumer) and wife (dramatic mezzo Monika Schwabegger). In Morrell’s version, an angel (the adorable boy soprano Manuel Haumer) intervenes and Iphis is saved, but must dedicate her life to the Lord instead of marrying her love, Hamor (effective countertenor Nicholas Spanos).
Steiner’s reading of the mildly disturbing but generally obsequiously presented story is decidedly edgy, especially considering the opera is staged inside the city church, guaranteeing that the religious context of the story is never far from consciousness. Instead of Jephtha depicted as the hero of the day, his trust in his faith and religious conviction shown in a positive light, here his willingness to literally slay his daughter instead of renouncing his rash oath is tantamount to religious mania. His “Waft her, angels, through the skies” was delivered in a wide-eyed, delusional trance instead of the stately peace normally assigned it, and it is clear throughout the work that his sentiments are not generally shared by his subjects or family. Dressing the choir of the Israelites in vaguely priest-like trappings, but with hangmen-like headpieces covering their eyes underscored effectively the questionable nature of institutionalized belief. Similarly, the entire royal family is clad in leather, boots and fur, with mops of unkempt hair (the one exception being Iphis in a virginal white robe), called to mind a primitive tribe of hunters instead of the sleekly gracious figures that grace the pages of illustrated Children’s Bibles.
After the angel’s intervention, Jephtha is dethroned by his family and Hamor takes his place. The priests remove their masks and the bands reading” whatever is, is right”, thus inferring the shift from a warring, blindly bloody society to one of individual introspection and peace during the final chorus and highlighting the text “Freed from war’s destructive sword; Peace her plenty round shall spread”. Considering the violent events of the past weeks throughout the European continent in the name of religious conviction, a more timely sentiment would be difficult to find.
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