Handel’s Jephtha is an oratorio, rather than an opera. However, the story is one of high drama and emotion, and thus the work lends itself easily to operatic adaptation. The oratorio relates the story of Jephtha from the Book of Judges, in which the exiled illegitimate son of Gilead, leader of the Israelites, vows to God that if he should be victorious in battle against the Ammonites, he will sacrifice as a burnt-offering the first person to greet him upon his return. He is indeed victorious, and his daughter Iphis runs out to welcome him.

Fflur Wyn (Iphis) and WNO Chorus © Bill Cooper
Fflur Wyn (Iphis) and WNO Chorus
© Bill Cooper

Around the time of writing the oratorio, there was much theological debate as to whether Iphis was in fact offered up; the Bible story strongly implied it, but some scholars believed that she was in fact made to live as a virgin in perpetuity. The latter ending was the one chosen by librettist the Revd Thomas Morrell; Iphis’ life is saved by the visitation of an angel, who says that Iphis should not be killed, but should live. Whether he did so merely for dramatic purposes or because he believed that Iphis was never sacrificed is unclear. Either way, Jephtha is powerful in terms of both libretto and music, and Welsh National Opera’s performance showed its operatic potential to great effect.

With an audience capacity of 1,800, the New Theatre is considerably smaller than the London opera houses. The orchestra is on the same level as the front of the stalls; the conductor is visible to all; and the players’ heads are more-or-less at stage level. As far as the musical side of things goes, the theatre provides a chamber-like experience, and one which might not work for grander operas. However, it suited Jephtha’s Baroque music rather well. The stage, of course, is a large one, and the proscenium itself extends from floor to ceiling. It was pleasing to see that WNO’s choice of scenery made use of the space available: the two main scene ideas were the hall of a convincingly dilapidated stately home, complete with sweeping, wrought-iron staircase and crumbling plaster, and (what I thought might be) a landing in the house, with wood-panelled walls. All of this was complemented by Chris Davey’s subtle but effective lighting. Revival Director Robin Tebbutt’s production was in fact set in the 1940s, the themes of battle translating well into the Second World War era. The costumes were very stylish indeed – rather like an episode of Mad Men, but set a couple of decades earlier.

The quality of the acting on stage from all performers, including the busy chorus, was superb. There was no hint of ham acting: the movement (directed by Struan Leslie) and drama were convincing, rather than overdone. There was some stylish singing, too, in this excellent production. Robert Murray made a tender, thoughtful Jephtha, weighed down by the thought of the fate to which his daughter had been consigned. “Waft her, angels, through the skies” was sung delicately, but his vocal and physical expressiveness conveyed sincerity in asking for God’s protection over Iphis. Alan Ewing’s deep bass voice lent gravitas to the role of Zebul, Jephtha’s brother, soundly sending him out to fight for his people.

Diana Montague sung the role of Storgè, the wife of Jephtha, and lived up to her name, it being one of the four types of love in New Testament Greek and connoting the natural affection between parent and offspring: a good, authoritative military wife to her husband, who played down her personal concerns in comparison to those of the nation “panting for liberty and life”, she was also a caring mother to Iphis, and the dynamic and stylistic contrasts in her singing reflected her different rôles. As Angel, Claire Ormshaw had only a minor role, but her singing was delightful, and her appearance – in an androgynous wool suit, to which were attached enormous feathered wings – conveyed an air of holy authority. Most enjoyable of all, though, were countertenor Robin Blaze as Hamor, Iphis’ love, and Fflur Wyn, as Iphis herself. Blaze is obviously at home with Handelian arias; his twice hitting a clean top G in his ornamentations was particularly impressive. Wyn’s clear, bright soprano was well suited to the role of Iphis, and it worked excellently in duet with Hamor.

After a slightly shaky start and some minor ensemble issues between singers and orchestra in the first act, the musicians, under Paul Goodwin’s capable direction, seemed to settle. It was a pity that the trumpets’ playing towards the very end was marred by their rushing, and that Goodwin had to conduct visibly more animatedly towards their general direction in order to bring them back into line, but that was a small issue that did not detract from the overall favourable impression I had of the playing. It may sound snobbish to say that I was “pleasantly surprised” by this production, but I was, having never seen WNO in performance before and therefore being unsure of what to expect. It was easily of the quality of some of the London-based opera houses, and made for an extremely enjoyable evening.