I suppose some people get tired of Handel purists whinging on about how his works are mistreated in theatrical presentations, but sometimes it is impossible to resist. The story of Jephtha, drawn from the Old Testament, involves an Israelite leader making a vow that, in return for a victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first creature (“what, or whoe’er”) he sees thereafter.  This happens to be his daughter, so he believes himself bound to take her life. In the original Biblical version, it seems that this is what happens. In the Handel oratorio version, with text by clergyman Thomas Morell, an Angel intervenes (as with Abraham and Isaac) to save her, but she must devote her life to celibacy. The implication is that Jephtha and his friends and family have all maintained their faith and will be rewarded in this way. There are complex historical, social and theological underpinnings to this version, as pointed out by scholar Ruth Smith, and it is certainly what Handel and Morell specifically intended.

Robert Sellier (Jephtha) and Chorus © Tobias Kruse
Robert Sellier (Jephtha) and Chorus
© Tobias Kruse

In this new production by Oper Halle, the original Biblical ending is restored, but not in any very coherent way. Instead of Israelites, we appear to be confronted by some kind of weird Christian cult with Jephtha their charismatic leader, who seem prone to reverting to some equally weird non-Christian faith involving small gilded idols and rocks at the least provocation. At the start, they are renouncing all this, but after the implications of Jephtha’s vow become manifest, they all revert to their idols and rocks. Iphis is so put out, presumably at the lifetime celibacy option, that she smacks Hamor around and then somehow ends up dead (I think) under a white shroud with rocks arrayed on her inert body. To make this work, the entire recit-duet sequence “My faithful Hamor… All that is in Hamor mine” is jettisoned. In other respects, the work is performed mostly intact, in two parts with the interval after Act 2 scene 2, so the second half starts with the Sinfonia preceding “Hail glorious conqueror”.

Ines Lex (Iphis) and Leandro Marziotte (Hamor) © Tobias Kruse
Ines Lex (Iphis) and Leandro Marziotte (Hamor)
© Tobias Kruse

One might find this acceptable, or bearable, if it were carried off with directorial style and musical excellence. Tatjana Gürbaca's staging is dull to excess, the cult group clearly having been sent off to the local op-shop to acquire the drabbest clothes imaginable, including underwear (costumes Silke Willrett). Iphis appears as a young woman in a white full-skirted frock with black spots, and a pink hoodie over it. Ines Lex was directed to play the role in a style of chattering and squealing inanity including cavorting on daddy’s lap. Said daddy sported a singlet and brown pants with a trademan’s belt which included such pragmatic items as hunting knives and pistols. At different times he donned, and removed, a rather priestly scarf, a mask, and a false nose. Storgè was considerably brighter, with a grey top over quite a festive skirt, shiny black shoes and, frequently, sunglasses. Her behaviour gave a new meaning to the word “manic” throughout. The set comprised a big black space with a revolving centrepiece and a mirror lowered from the ceiling now and again. There really must be something problematical about the direction when some of the audience are induced to laugh at “and she dies”.

Musically things were somewhat, but not entirely, better. Conductor Christoph Spering’s efforts were hampered by the decision to split the orchestra into pieces; a small group of them began playing the overture in the foyer before everyone was seated, and they then had to infiltrate the orchestra pit to join in after the curtain rose. At different points they appeared in the upper galleries, and it was generally a relief when they rejoined the orchestra. Otherwise they played well, if slightly ponderously, especially compared with the hysteria on stage.

Tae-Young Hyun (Angel) and Chorus © Tobias Kruse
Tae-Young Hyun (Angel) and Chorus
© Tobias Kruse

All the singers except one suffered from disappearing voice syndrome. This was strange, as it afflicted some of them even when they were standing upright in the centre of the stage. Audibility was not helped by poor English diction, with the exception of Jephtha and Iphis, and including the choir. The title role was sung by Robert Sellier, a rather soft-grained tenor. Ines Lex as Iphis is a familiar lyric soprano at Halle, with a sweet voice, and why her projection here was so poor, along with the others, is a mystery. Svetlana Sylvia as Storgè seemed to have a pleasant mezzo voice when it could be heard. Countertenor Leandro Marziotte seemed to have one of those rather unyielding straight-toned voices, although possibly showing a bit more warmth and variation towards the end. Zebul was sung by another Halle stalwart, Ki-Hyun Park, with comparatively robust voice but he seemed to be crooning by the end. The best projected singer was the Angel, sung by young treble Tae-Houng Hyuni.