For decades thousands and thousands have attended Handel’s Messiah (usually around Christmas or more appropriately near Easter) making it easily one of the most widely known works of classical music. And yet among the composer’s oratorios it’s the most atypical—it features no characters, its text is drawn from the Bible rather than having a plot created by a librettist.
Born of a need to reinvent himself in the 1730s as the public became increasingly disenchanted with Italian opera seria, the English dramatic oratorio was Handel’s sole innovation and his include some remarkable music-dramas (studded with thrilling choruses) equal to his greatest operas. It’s sad that they are so rarely performed here in New York City. But when I learned that two outstanding musical organizations—The Handel and Haydn Society and Les Violons du Roy–were performing his two final oratorios in May, I could not resist.
I’ve never been all that crazy about Messiah, so I came to the oratorios via the non-religious ones: Semele and Hercules. As a teenager one of the first pirate tapes I bought was the Beverly Sills–Julius Rudel Semele from the 1969 Caramoor Festival and I fell hard—it’s a delicious work and one of Sills’s greatest performances. Later I inhaled John Eliot Gardiner’s vivid Hercules with the wonderful Sarah Walker as Dejanira and the rapturous lovers of Jennifer Smith and Anthony Rolfe Johnson.
Eventually I let down my defenses against the Biblical pieces, particularly Saul (first via the universally disliked Harnoncourt-Fischer-Dieskau recording) which is one of the great works of the 18th century and one which plays very well on stage as I experienced with the Christoph Loy production at the Bavarian State Opera, despite it being nearly sabotaged by Brian Asawa’s twee David. Great Handel oratorio advocate William Christie will finally conduct Saul—at Glyndebourne in Barrie Kosky’s production in 2015—which is exceptionally good news indeed.
After giving two performances during a short California tour, Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society brought its Jephtha, Handel’s final oratorio, home to Symphony Hall during the first weekend of May. Founded in 1815, H&H is the longest continuously performing arts group in America and gave the US premieres of such important choral works as Haydn’s The Creation, the Bach St. Matthew Passion, the Verdi Requiem, along with Messiah, which it introduced in1818. Although it also gave its US premiere in 1867, it had not performed Jephtha in the intervening 146 years, so H&H finally brought this great work for the first time to the magnificent Symphony Hall where it has been performing since that hall opened in 1900.
Based on an incident from the Bible’s Book of Judges, Jephtha has a plot remarkably like that of Mozart’s Idomeneo, as well as containing echoes of the story of Abraham and Isaac. Jephtha has been selected as the leader most likely to succeed in ridding the Israeli people of the domination of the Ammonites. As he leaves for battle, he swears to sacrifice “whoever shall first salute mine eyes” if he returns victorious, and, of course, the person he encounters upon his return is his only child, his daughter Iphis.
The work explores Jephtha’s anguish at the consequences of his rash oath, his wife Storgé’s dark premonitions of doom, along with, most movingly, Iphis’s serene acceptance of her fate. At the last moment, an angel appears to proclaim that death is not the sacrifice that God requires: Iphis instead must remain a virgin and devote her life to God, a turn-of-events to which her presumed husband-to-be Hamor magnanimously accedes.
Among the most striking aspects is the insistent inevitability of God’s will. The very first words of the oratorio, delivered by Zebul, Jephtha’s brother, are “It must be so.” And the final words of the astonishing chorus that concludes the second act are “Whatever is, is right” which speak again to the necessity of accepting what God has in store. This is particularly poignant since Handel had to break off composition of Jephtha as he got to this chorus which begins “How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees/All hid from mortal sight!’ due to his encroaching blindness.
Since 2008, The Handel and Haydn Society has been led by Harry Christophers, best known for his association with The Sixteen, the British choral organization he founded in 1979 and still leads. I had never heard the H&H live before this Jephtha, but it seemed that the organization had perhaps lost some of its luster with the departure of Christopher Hogwood, who was its musical director from 1986 to 2001 and who initiated its use of period instruments. But based on this performance, H&H happily sounded like one of the best HIP organizations in the country, perhaps not surprising since Boston’s Early Music scene has long been one of the country’s most accomplished and varied, often putting New York City to shame.
Although Christophers could be quite visually distracting—lots of jumping around with huge dramatic gestures—he clearly gets results: the orchestra played exceptionally well, with biting intensity when necessary but also with lovely singing tone in the quieter moments. As fine as the orchestra was, the chorus of 29 was even more impressive, singing with precision and nuance and making such a splendid noise that one could easily have imagined that there were twice their number on stage. Clearly Christophers’s history as a choral conductor has borne fruit with this splendid group, two of whose members also took solo parts: soprano Teresa Wakim as the Angel who saves Iphis’s life and the very fine bass Woodrow Bynum as a ringingly forthright Zebul.
Unfortunately Christophers found it necessary to import weak English singers for three of the other four principal roles, perhaps because he has worked with them before or perhaps because one might assume they are naturally more experienced in the genre. As Hamor, countertenor William Purefoy (whose brother James stars as a serial-killer in the television series The Following) too often sounded like an Iestyn Davies-wannabe. His hooty English Cathedral countertenor failed to win much sympathy for the hapless lover. His shaky coloratura technique made the odd cutting of his florid showpiece “Up the dreadful steep ascending” inevitable.
In fact, this was not the only instance where Christophers made some odd omissions. In both this aria and one of Jephtha’s, the singer performed only the A and B sections of the da capo aria (Jephtha has many of these) with the repeat of the A section omitted. It was rather shocking to hear this since I had assumed this awkwardly unmusical practice of cutting da capo arias had ended in the 70s!
Storgé, Jephtha’s wife whose blazing aria “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe” predicts the tragedy about to occur, was portrayed with all the intensity of a mildly rattled housewife by Catherine Wyn-Rogers whose light, watery mezzo lacked the depth and power to do justice to this anguished character. Tenor Robert Murray who is David in The Sixteen’s new recording of Saul conducted by Christophers sang a bleaty, unmoving Jephtha. While dramatically committed, he lacked the vocal control for this demanding role. Like Purefoy, he struggled with the coloratura, and his curdled, gritty voice shouted high notes and missed the hushed serenity for the most famous aria, Jephtha’s prayer for his daughter “Waft her angels through the sky.”
Happily, American soprano Joélle Harvey, who had been so impressive as Tigrane in The English Concert’s recent performance of Handel’s opera Radamisto at Carnegie Hall, was a ravishing Iphis, one of Handel’s most appealing heroines. Although she occasionally used more straight-tone than desirable, she touchingly delineated the young girl’s growing awareness of her predicament with an interestingly grainy, yet silvery tone. Her final “Farewell, ye limpid springs” was quietly devastating in its radiant embrace of death.
Despite the disappointing imported soloists, the spectacular orchestra and chorus, along with Harvey’s Iphis, made this Boston Jephtha nonetheless an often thrilling event, nearly as fine as the last Jephtha I attended in Paris by Les Arts Florissants which inversely had a frustratingly weak Iphis.
During the final weekend of May Les Violons du Roy presented Handel’s penultimate oratorio Theodora both in its home city Québec and in Montréal where I heard it in the magnificent Maison Symphonique which just opened in the fall of 2011. Les Violons, founded in 1984 by musical director Bernard Labadie (then only 21), has been less of a stranger to NYC than the Handel and Haydn Society. I first heard them in Jonathan Miller’s striking Così Fan Tutte at the 2004 Mostly Mozart Festival, a production brightened by Susan Gritton’s surprisingly full-blooded Fiordiligi and Nathan Gunn at his most “strapping” as Guglielmo. They later accompanied Magdalena Kozená in a marvelous Gluck-Rameau program at Zankel Hall in 2006.
I missed Labadie’s Met debut conducting Die Zauberflöte in 2009, but he and Les Violons returned to Carnegie Hall last spring for an intense Bach Johannes-Passion, so I was eager to hear them in Handel, particularly when I saw the cast! It’s hard to imagine finer singers for Theodora today than Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton, and Andrew Foster-Williams.
Set like Jephtha to a libretto by Thomas Morell, the work which deals not with the notorious Empress of Byzantium but rather with a martyr who perished during the reign of Diocletian was a flop when it premiered at Covent Garden in 1750 yet remained Handel’s favorite and his only dramatic oratorio on a Christian subject. The “heathens,” led by Valens, rage against the believers who encouraged by their leader Theodora refuse to capitulate to the demands that they give up their beliefs. Valens orders Septimius and Didymus to arrest Theodora, but Didymus has begun to be swayed by her beauty as well as by her faith.
The punishment for the recalcitrant leader (who remains a virgin) is that she be taken to a brothel and made to serve Venus, who “laughing from the skies/Will applaud her votaries” as a prostitute. Didymus, encouraged by his new vocation as a Christian, steals into Theodora’s quarters offering her his uniform as a means of escape. She at first demurs but eventually agrees leaving Didymus as a prisoner in her stead. Eventually Theodora is recaptured and both she and Didymus are condemned to death which they accept willingly. This “unhappy” ending has been suggested as a reason for the work’s initial cool reception.
Although Jephtha contains much beautiful music, Theodora struck me this time as perhaps Handel’s most lovely and deeply felt work, particularly in the serene yet human music for its heroine. Initially a glowing Karina Gauvin (dressed in the bright red of martyrdom) struck me as possibly miscast—one usually thinks of the virginal Theodora as young and innocent; however, I soon grew convinced by Gauvin’s mature and womanly interpretation.
She was particularly fine in the extraordinary second-act prison scene, which is a rare example in Handel of a cavatina-cabaletta structure: an opening sinfonia is followed by a recitative then by a slow aria, then another short sinfonia leads to second recitative, finally concluding with a fast aria. Another high point was her devastating “The pilgrim’s home, the sick man’s health” in response to Didymus as he beseeches her to escape. Her fearless yet vulnerable Theodora alone was worth the trip to Montréal.
As Didymus Davies gave the most accomplished performance I have heard from him over the past five years, always sensitively and beautifully sung. But in the end I wanted more—his interpretation was strangely cool, peculiar since Didymus undergoes the most profound changes of any character. His highly affected diction fell oddly on the ear compared to the others; however he and Gauvin did blend gorgeously in their two piercing duets.
He and his two British colleagues were worlds superior to those in Boston. Tenor Clayton was a suave and earnest Septimius, easily handling the florid writing while maintaining a sweet tone. Some strain crept up in his final “From Virtue springs each gen’rous deed,” but one would love to hear him again as either Jonathan in Saul or Jupiter in Semele or as Jephtha. Bass-baritone Foster-Williams has long been a near-ideal exemplar of Handel’s bass oratorio roles—he was an excellent Zebul in an unusual staging of Jephtha by Jonathan Duverger and Jean-Marie Villégier in Strasbourg several years ago. One hopes that his upcoming Telramund (opposite the first Ortrud of Deborah Voigt) does not portend his abandoning the 18th century repertoire he has served so well.
My one qualm about the soloists centered on Lemieux as Irene, Theodora’s boon companion. I was an early fan of the Québec contralto but her singing has gotten increasingly blowsy and unsteady, although she was on her best current form this evening. Her most effective moment was “Defend her, Heav’n” which she built with impressive intensity, making the da capo repeat into a particularly fervent prayer. Although I don’t generally subscribe to the idea of ”definitive portrayals,” Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Irene by comparison stands as one of the few transcendent performances I’ve ever seen.
Les Violons du Roy play on modern instruments (although the string players use period bows), but its performances glow with the vigor and passion of the best HIP groups. I do prefer the sound of gut strings, wooden flutes and tangy old oboes, but it was impossible to criticize the orchestral performance during Theodora, and Labadie’s vibrant, unshowy conducting was particularly responsive to his soloists and the excellent chorus, La Chapelle de Québec which he founded the year after Les Violons du Roy. Given the number of really fine performances I’ve heard by Labadie and his frequent guest-conducting with mainstream symphony orchestras, I cannot help but wonder why he shouldn’t be seen as a viable alternative to the u-Bicket-y of that other conductor of 18th century repertoire in NYC.
If you missed Jephtha or Theodora, it’s encouraging that both groups have again programmed Handel oratorios next season. Handel and Haydn again in early May will be performing Samson (not one of my favorites) with Harvey sure to be a delicious Dalila. It’s a work that Christophers has successfully recorded so the concerts promise to be worthwhile. In March 2014 Labadie, Gauvin, Lemieux, Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec will reunite for Solomon, one of Handel’s grandest yet most diffuse works, along with another enticing group of soloists: James Gilchrist, Shannon Mercer, Philippe Sly and Krisztina Szabó.
For those unfamiliar with these two oratorios, unfortunately the Strasbourg Jephtha production has not found its way onto DVD, but there are several appealing CD recordings, including Gardiner’s with its particularly lovely Iphis and Storgé, Lynne Dawson and Anne-Sofie von Otter, and Marcus Creed’s very inexpensive set features the excellent Jephtha of John Mark Ainsley. Although it doesn’t equal the astonishing Jephtha I heard Rolfe Johnson sing in Chicago in 1988, his recording with Neville Marriner and the sadly underrated Margaret Marshall as Iphis is still very good.
The Glyndebourne production of Theodora remains essential, either on DVD or CD (for those who may despise Peter Sellars), not only for Hunt Lieberson’s sublime Irene but also for Dawn Upshaw (although reportedly conductor Christie hated her in the title part), Richard Croft and David Daniels, whose astonishing Didymus is one of the best things he has ever done. Daniels returns to the role next season after nearly 18 years for a tour with The English Concert which arrives at Carnegie Hall on February 2 with Dorothea Röschmann as his Theodora.
Several years after the original Glyndebourne production, Hunt Lieberson recorded Irene’s five solos in the studio; they are intensely affecting yet vocally more uneven than the earlier performance. Unfortunately I find her early oratorio recordings with Nicholas McGegan (including the title role in Theodora) pretty unsatisfactory.
I can’t recommend the DVD of the recent Christoph Loy production of Theodora from Salzburg featuring Christine Schäfer, an impossible Handel singer. Davies’s most recent solo CD features one of Didymus’s arias written for the castrato Guadagni who also Gluck’s first Orfeo. Gauvin and Lemieux (this time as Didymus) sing four selections on their excellent recent CD of oratorio excerpts named after Theodora’s seraphic final duet “Streams of pleasure.”
And then there are Belshazzar and Athalia and Esther….