For the last four years, the Canberra Choral Society has presented an annual Handel oratorio performance, under the leadership of established Australian countertenor Tobias Cole. This year, a rather grander offering comes in the form of a staged version of Handel’s oratorio Jephtha, under the name of The Vow, in the Playhouse at the Canberra Theatre Centre, more commonly a venue for straight drama. It comes under the aegis of yet another new Australian musical entity “Handel in the Theatre”, which, at least on this occasion, includes a Chorus from the Canberra Choral Society along with a small group of musicians. The staging is directed by Cole, while the role of conductor falls to Brett Weymark, best known as Director of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. In this latter role, Weymark had already conducted an excellent Jepththa in 2009, in standard oratorio style.

Tobias Cole (Hamor) and Jacqueline Porter (Iphis) © Hou Leong
Tobias Cole (Hamor) and Jacqueline Porter (Iphis)
© Hou Leong

Jephtha, like many of Handel’s dramatic English oratorios, is eminently stageable, and indeed there have been at least two such presentations in Australia, in Brisbane in 1985 and Melbourne in 1989. This version is Handel almost intact (lacking the chorus “When his loud voice in thunder spoke”, Zebul’s air “Freedom now” and Jeptha’s air “Deeper and deeper still”) until the climax; after “Theme sublime of endless praise” the curtain fell, depriving us of three more airs and the lovely quintet “All that is in Hamor mine”. Some of the final chorus was delivered after the curtain rose for the final bows. As is so often the case, the three-part design of the composer was rejected in favour of a two part performance, with an interval between “In glory high” and Iphis’s “Hail glorious conqueror”.  This meant that the curtain fell just as Jephtha’s face froze in horror as he understands what his welcome by Iphis means in terms of his vow, a reasonable dramatic choice. This was rather undercut by a singalong in which the audience was encouraged to join in on a C of E hymn to the tune of “See the conquering hero” (Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus). Some people enjoyed this.

The staging was really quite minimal, involving few props, and consisting more of moving people round the stage in appropriate dramatic ways; the chorus performed without books, and arranged themselves in tableaux at various points. The setting as indicated by the costumes suggested the 1940s or 50s – perhaps referring to World War II; said costumes for the chorus and principals were unrelentingly drab, with rather a large number of brown cardigans and the like. Jephtha and Zebul wore very vaguely militaristic overcoats, while Hamor looked more like an accountant, sporting a three-piece suit. Iphis wore a girly get-up involving a Peter Pan collar and a pleated skirt, her mum more formal in a blue suit. In contrast to all this, the Angel was a rather blinding vision of bling and glitter, resembling a 1940s-50s lounge singer in a dubious nightclub.

Andrew Goodwin (Jephtha) © Hou Leong
Andrew Goodwin (Jephtha)
© Hou Leong

One of the problems with the production was the use of a large choir in combination with a very small period orchestra, comprising two oboes, two violins, a viola, double bass, bassoon, harpsichord and chamber organ, which naturally led to a marked thinness in the strings. On the other hand, the players under concertmaster Matthew Bruce (Australian Brandenburg Orchestra) are all seasoned Baroque players and had no problems with the score. Some cadential pauses between recitative and air slowed things down a bit.

The two leads, Andrew Goodwin as Jephtha and Jacqueline Porter as Iphis, were excellent in their portrayals. The former started quietly, but soon warmed up, providing some lovely rousing tenor singing in “His mighty arm”, vigourous and authoritative, but suitably intense and stricken in “Open thy marble jaws”, and infinitely tender in “Waft her angels”. Porter produced silvery sounds, also sounding somewhat restrained at first but blooming beautifully in “Tune the soft melodious lute”, with a lovely and affecting “Farewell ye limpid springs”. Unfortunately, Cole sounded quite out of voice as Hamor. Storgè was sung by Christine Wilson with precision and pleasant tone, but was overly genteel in “Scenes of horror”. Christopher Richardson was a stalwart Zebul, and Sarah Louise Owens the rather blowsy angel. The fresh young voices of Emma Griffiths and Vanessa Hooley nicely carried off the maids’ duet (substituting for the boys’ choir in “Welcome thou”).