American Opera Theater, Handel Choir collaborate on powerful staging of 'Jephtha'

Excuse the short notice, but if you happen to see this in time and you haven't made firm plans for your Saturday night, consider spending about three hours of it at First English Lutheran Church up on Charles Street. Not for a service, mind you, but for an experience that, if you're so inclined, does offer a spiritual dimension.

It's a staged version of Handel's "Jephtha," the last and among the finest of the composer's oratorio, and it represents a successful collaboration between the American Opera Theater and the Handel Choir of Baltimore (specifically the latter's chorus-within-the-chorus, the Chandos Singers). All things considered, this is a powerful, often provocative presentation of an extraordinary work.

"Jephtha" tells one of the darkest, most emotionally and intellectually challenging of Old Testament stories. In brief, Jephtha, once spurned by his half-brothers, is begged by them to lead the Israelites in a conflict against the Ammonites. He agrees. But Jephtha makes a harsh vow to God conditional on being victorious in battle. He swears to sacrifice

whoever "emerges and comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon." That person turns out to be his only daughter (unnamed in the Book of Judges).

Handel's version, with a text by Thomas Morell, replaces the horrid human-sacrifice ending of the story with something cheerier, but it's still a heavy drama, nowhere more so than when the chorus sings, "No certain bliss, no solid peace, we mortals know on earth below. Yet on this maxim still obey: "Whatever is, is right."

This production has a concept from director Timothy Nelson (he also designed the abstract scaffolding of a set, lit by Samuel Shumway). The original notion of tragedy in the biblical story is preserved here, but with a twist.

Whether Nelson's solution works can be debated. So can the rest of his staging, which, to my tastes, gets carried away at times (characters are pushed and knocked down several times too often in an attempt to make the action more visceral). And I may never know what all the hymn books are doing as props. But no matter. In the end, the oratorio successfully becomes personalized, inhabited by real characters, rather than oratorio soloists, and the music does gain something from the process.

That certainly was the case Friday night. All the performers seemed deeply into this version, communicating vividly. Scott Mello, in the title role, phrased with admirable sensitivity. When pushed to his upper or lowest extremes, his tenor thinned out, but the rest rang out beautifully. He shaped the oratorio's most famous number, "Waft her, angels, through the skies," with considerable eloquence.

Emily Noel used her pure soprano effectively as Jephtha's daughter, Iphis (Morell gave her the name, with an appropriate touch of Greek tragedy about it). Mezzo-soprano Sophie Louise Roland, as Jephtha's wife, Storge, revealed compelling expressive depth. Countertenor Brian Cummings (Hamor, beloved of Iphis) offered consistently stylish phrasing; his duets with Noel were exquisite. And baritone Benjamin Moore, as Jephtha's brother, Zebul, sang warmly, elegantly. The chorus produced a smooth blend and shaped lines with care.

Speaking of lines, few were intelligible, a great pity. It wasn't the fault of the singers, but rather the reverberant acoustics, which swallowed up much of the text. Even so, the essence of the text and the dramatic situations emerged.

Adding immeasurably to the performance was the sensitive work by the Ignoti Dei Orchestra of period instruments; the impeccable organ and harpsichord playing of Adam Pearl offered particular pleasure. And presiding over the score with her usual fluency and grace was Handel Choir artistic director Melinda O'Neal.

"Jephtha" may never rival "Messiah" in popularity, but it is an amazing work, as this production nobly reaffirms. To give you a taste of the score's riches, here's a clip of "Waft her, angels," sung by the wonderful English tenor Ian Bostridge:

 

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