HANDEL: Jephtha (complete opera) – Soloists/ The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro (3 CDs)

HANDEL: Jeptha (complete opera) – James Gilchrist (Jephtha)/ Susan Bickley (Storge)/ Sophie Bevan (Iphis)/ Robin Blaze (Hamor)/ Matthew Brook (Zebul)/ Grace Davidson (Angel)/The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro COR16121 (3 CDs), 58:34, 57:25, 52:19 [Distr. by Allegro] (9/9/14) ***1/2:

Handel’s Jephtha was the last oratorio he was ever to write, and it is also one of his most operatic. According to the notes, “he had composed over 40 operas, over 30 odes, oratorios and serenatas, over 100 cantatas, over 40 pieces of church music, and over 100 instrumental works.” Not a bad resume for the most active theater composer in history. Yet even he could not, in the end, be honest with the audience about the biblical account of Jephtha, from the eleventh chapter of the Book of Judges. Everyone who knew the story then, which would be just about everyone in the hall, knew that Jephtha, a hero returning from battle, had vowed to sacrifice the first thing he saw upon returning victorious. As it happened, it was his daughter. In post-enlightenment Britain, where debates about the authenticity of the bible, and hence of Christianity, were raging, the librettist, Rev. Thomas Morell, anticipated the fevers to come by merging the biblical account with essentially old Greek plays by Euripides, especially Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris in order to create an alternative ending. Now Jephtha is heralded for his faith in attempting to carry out the sacrifice, a la Abraham, but also is shown another door out of the dilemma whereby Iphis is to be exalted instead of sacrificed, and Jephtha progresses in his own learning experience of God’s mercy.

Handel milks the problems inherent in the characters for all they are worth, creating an opera of psychological and ethical complexity which he never had really achieved until then, despite a plethora of other successes. The richness of his invention and the broad aspects to his colorful and radiantly descriptive music make for three hours of rare engagement.

The Sixteen continue along their traversal of the Handelian canon, and this is a fine recording, though it must needs be compared with a previous classic, John Eliot Gardiner on Philips, from the 1988 Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen, with a stellar cast. And it does have the better sound; despite 2014 recording techniques, Philips knew what it was doing back then, and provides Gardiner with broad and far-ranging audio, whereas Christophers is much more constricted, albeit still very good. The singers need to be swapped—Gardiner has the best females (hard to top Anne-Sophie von Otter and Lynne Dawson) while Gilchrist, Blaze, and Brook give superior efforts to the rather undernourished Nigel Robson, Michael Chance, and Stephen Varcoe—good as they are. But Gardiner also has a greater dramatic sense as well, and that is reflected in the playing and singing. But the men in this recording are outstanding, and so it is difficult for me to dismiss such a fine effort as what the Sixteen have given us. Tough choices indeed, but if you are having only one, the Gardiner is the way to go.

—Steven Ritter

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