PERFORMER: Sophie Bevan, Grace Davidson (soprano), Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), James Gilchrist (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone); The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
CATALOGUE NO: COR 16121
Darkness, physical and psychological, clings to Handel’s last oratorio. A staying angel’s hand might spare the life of Jephtha’s daughter Iphis, unwitting victim of her father’s sacrificial vow made in exchange for military victory, but the collateral damage to the central relationships is inescapable. And there’s the rub. Harry Christophers’s taut, vibrant, and beautifully sprung account is bright and dazzling, yet so often the score ought to inhabit the tortured light and shade of Caravaggio. With the choir and instrumental forces of The Sixteen on scintillating form, the choruses are finely chiselled; but the sheer polish and manicure sometimes works against the visceral immediacy of any underlying ‘sore distress’.
It’s an ambivalence that extends to James Gilchrist’s portrayal of Jephtha himself. True the show-stealing ‘Waft her, Angels,’ is delivered with heartbreaking poise, but anguish can be downgraded to mere pathos, and when he sings of ‘Horrors! Confusion’ on seeing his daughter, it lacks the sense of gut-wrenching implosion that will impale him on the ‘rack of wild despair’. As his wife Storge, Susan Bickley is part lioness, part broken mother, but the star of the set is Sophie Bevan’s Iphis, liquidly caressing as she prepares to become her father’s worst nightmare, and accepting of her fate with seraphic submission. She and thwarted partner Hamor (Robin Blaze) duet irresistibly like cooing love birds at the end of Act I Scene 3. To contemporary ears, their ultimate, unsought sacrifice eclipses all others.