Jephtha, New York

That’s a pity, because
Jephtha’s musical and dramatic structures indicate that a closer
intertwining of staged drama and static oratorio was coming into being:
Chorales are fewer and less involved in the action than in the earlier
oratorios, and the action includes a remarkable quartet of conflicting points
of view at a moment of high tension, almost unprecedented in Handelian drama
and pointing the way to Mozart and Rossini. Characters state their feelings in
da capo arias, as one expects, but alternate such static reveries with
soliloquies in recitative accompanied by full orchestra or the occasional duet.
The characteristic emotions and tunes we know from Handel are here, but new
expressive tools are brought to their aid. After forty years in the business,
the great man hadn’t run out of, or even low on, new ideas.

The story, though Biblical, resembles the Idomeneo legend familiar
to us from Mozart’s opera (Bible stories could not be staged in England
before the twentieth century): Israel’s General Jephtha has vowed, if
successful in battle, to sacrifice the first creature he encounters on his
return. To his embarrassment, the creature who emerges to welcome him is his
daughter. He squirms, he bargains, he considers alternatives — but a
vow’s a vow. However, like Neptune (in Idomeneo’s case), Jehovah
lets him off the hook: An angel suggests that Iphis, the general’s
daughter, be offered to perpetual virginity as a Jewish nun, in effect, and
that an animal be sacrificed instead. In the Bible, actually, relentless
Jephtha sacrifices his daughter, but Handel’s version recalls the tale of
Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac. In any case, the unhappy
ending would have had unpleasant political ramifications in Handel’s day,
when the rationalists were dwelling on such tales to discredit religion
generally. Handel, devout believer and lifelong optimist, pulls it off
convincingly, and few among his usual audience today are likely to spot the
change. Only Iphis’s boyfriend remains unhappy.

St. Ignatius Loyola, Manhattan’s Jesuit church, is an edifice in the
style of a great Roman basilica, with porphyry columns, faux marble panels,
frescos of the saint’s life, death and apotheosis and a rather muddy
acoustic: A small chorus and orchestra (always preferable for Handel) booms
down the long nave to Park Avenue, but individual voices and instruments are
not as clear as one might like and soloists seemed to lose their clarity at one
end or another of their range. Conductor Kent Tritle’s rhythms were
happily vivid, and the three lengthy acts passed swiftly to the exciting

St.-Ignatius-Loyola.gifSt. Ignatius Loyola

The singers made rather an able than a striking set. Thomas Cooley, in the
emotionally awkward title role, sounded too light for the martial persona in
the first act but gained strength and bite as the catastrophe of his
ineluctable choice came home to him. Charlotte Daw Paulsen has some splendid
maternal contralto notes but her voice thinned to a strand above them. Ian
Howell, singing Iphis’s boyfriend, a role Handel wrote for a mezzo
soprano, is an adept countertenor without the mezzo power or sensuousness one
might desire. Kelly Markgraf has a pleasing and agile bass but had very little
to do as Jephtha’s brother.

Vocally the occasion would have been professional but little more had not
Susanna Phillips sung Iphis, the designated sacrifice, whose arias must present
her as a spirited warriors’ cheerleader, a devoted daughter, a fearful
suppliant, and a willing martyr by turns. Phillips, who has been garnering lots
of attention lately, proved worthy of it: she has an even, flexible voice with
a goodly heft to it, shining power in the upper range and no less force and
beauty in lower tones. (Handel never wastes part of a voice — he expects
his singers to use it all.) Phillips gave a radiant performance, and by the
very fact of singing so well throughout her compass disproved any suspicions
that St. Ignatius’s acoustics were kinder to certain ranges of sound than
others. Her only failing is a certain imprecision in swift ornament — she
has, for instance, no trill, and Handel often calls for one. The quality of her
soprano is so thrilling and her musicianship so steady that I hope to encounter
it often. She will sing Pamina at the Met this winter; she should be adorable
in that adorable (and not too ornamental) part.

John Yohalem

image_description=Susanna Phillips
product_title=G. F. Handel: Jephtha
product_by=Jephtha: Thomas Cooley; Iphis: Susanna Phillips; StorgË: Charlotte Daw Paulsen; Hamor: Ian Howell; Zebul: Kelly Markgraf. Chorus and orchestra of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, conducted by Kent Tritle. Performance of October 13.
product_id=Above: Susanna Phillips