Maurice Greene’s Jephtha

Greene is better known for his church music and anthems than for his
contributions to repertoire of a dramatic or theatrical nature, but he did
however produce a small number of oratorios, pastorals and festival and moral

Greene’s Jephtha (which was his second oratorio, after The
Song of Deborah and Barak
of 1732) was first performed in 1737, most
probably in the small tavern, The Devil, near Temple Bar where
meetings of the Apollo Society (founded by Greene and the Italian musician
Bononcini as a rival to the Academy of Ancient Music after an infamous dispute
between Bononcini and Handel, and named after the tavern’s famous ‘Apollo
Room’) were held. Presumably the work had more than one performance, for it
is known that the soprano part for Jephtha’s daughter was re-written for alto
at a later date. The work then languished in obscurity until a 1997
performance, given and broadcast by the BBC to mark the 300 th
anniversary of Greene’s birth a few months previously. For the latter
occasion, Peter Lynan prepared a performing edition, which was used here by
Bampton Classical Opera. (And, it is to Lynan’s informative programme article
that I am indebted for some of the contextual information about the career of
the little-documented Greene here presented.)

Greene set a libretto by John Hoadly (1711-76), the son of Benjamin Hoadly,
Bishop of Bangor (later of Winchester) and Chaplain to the Prince of Wales.
Jephtha’s story, given in the Book of Judges, is a rather grim Old Testament
tale of torment and sacrifice. The early Hebrew leader is recalled from exile
to lead his people against their enemies, the Ammonites; in return for victory
for the Israelites, Jephtha vows to sacrifice the first thing that he meets
upon returning home. With horrid and inevitable irony, when he returns
triumphant he is met by his beloved daughter. Jephtha explains to his daughter
that he must comply with his vow and she stoically accepts her fate: the final
chorus tells that each year Israel’s daughters will lament in her honour.

Hoadly follows the biblical story closely. (In 1751, when Handel set
Jephtha’s story his librettist Morell contrived a quasi-happy ending which
saw Jephtha’s daughter spared and her life devoted spiritual contemplation
and solitude. In contrast, Greene’s sacrificial daughter willingly accepts
her fate and asks only, ‘Let me awhile defer my Fate/ And to the mountains
fly;/ There to bewail my Virgin state/ And then return — and die.’ Some
have suggested that there is a political context for Greene’s choice of story
focusing as it does on the choice between national and personal fortune that a
patriotic leader must make, thereby developing a theme which was widely
discussed in England during the 1730s and 40s.

Hoadly’s text is fairly static, but it presents some powerful situations
and emotional of emotion, and Greene was not un-tuned to the potential for
musical characterisation and affekt. The high points come in the
second act which affords greater opportunity for heart-wringing and human
sacrifice. In this appealing performance by Bampton Classical Opera —
probably only the second performance since the time of the work’s composition
— the expressive impact and charm of Greene’s score was skilfully and
engagingly communicated.

The role of Jephtha was sung by John-Colyn Gyeantey. The tenor’s confident
high range was instantly apparent, and although his voice seemed a little tight
and lacking in support initially, as he warmed up and relaxed, Gyeantey’s
lyricism and expressive phrasing came to the fore. His Act 1 aria, ‘Pity
soothing melts the Soul’ was graceful and gentle, and his tone warmed still
further in the extensive, low-lying lines of ‘Thou sweetest joy’ in Act 2.
As the First Elder of Gilread, Nicholas Merryweather embodied imperious
stateliness, making every world of text clearly audible. Merryweather’s
baritone was rich and strong, with dark tone, but unfortunately it rather
overwhelmed Ben Williamson’s Second Elder, whose countertenor struggled to
project in their recitative duets. It was not until Williamson’s aria,
‘Against these new alarms’, that we were able to enjoy his flexible
phrasing and silky legato, and admire his strong upper register.

Soprano Rosalind Coad performed the only female solo role, as Jephtha’s
unfortunate daughter. In 2013 Coad won the Oxford Lieder Young Artist Platform
Award and was also awarded 2nd prize in the Bampton Classical Opera
Competition, and here she revealed a lucid, strong soprano which immediately
convinced that such acclaim was deserved. She floated lightly through the more
elaborate numbers — cascading in unison with the violins in the Act 2 ‘Ah!
My foreboding fears — and sang with astonishing delicacy and breath control
in the arias of pathos and tenderness, such as ‘if I thy Grief, thy Tears
employ’. When Coad was joined by the chorus soloist in ‘Awake each joyful
strain’, the female voices blended pleasing.

The singers were accompanied on period instruments by the Bampton Classical
Players, led by Adrian Chandler and conducted with unfussy precision by Gilly
French. The slow overture had stately gravitas, the heavy dotted rhythms
perhaps portentous of the tragedy to come, while in the following
Allegro there was much characterful violin playing supported by a
strong, supple bass line, while the woodwind interjections cut cleanly through
the vigorous string interplay. Greene employs some interesting harmonic
juxtapositions and modulations and these were judiciously emphasised.

I was impressed by the agility of the violin playing, and by the range of
colours and textures achieved by the small string section. The dialogues
between instruments and voices — in the accompanied recitatives and in the
arias — were vivid and melodious. The strings were kept busy but the wind
contributed chiefly in the choruses (of which there are several in each of the
two acts), offering a pleasing contrast of colour in, for example the chorus
‘Thou, universal Lord’. The recorders of Joel Raymond and Oonagh Lee were
poignantly sweet during the Act 2 duet, ‘Awake joyful strain’. Paul Sharp
and Simon Monday provided punchy trumpet interjections in the closing Act 1
chorus and in the Symphony which begins Act 2. The Players intonation was
consistently good.

Throughout the oratorio, the continuo accompaniments of James Johnstone
(harpsichord) and Gareth Deats (cello) gave the singers clear, sympathetic
support, but were also not themselves without vivacity and imagination. (As was
particularly evident during the rapid passagework which accompanies Jephtha’s
first Act 2 aria, Deats was not unduly troubled by the strapping on his
left-hand little finger!).

Perhaps the venue was less than helpful to the singers’ balance and
projection. The nave is high and while the choral singing of Cantandam was
joyful and robust at times one felt that some of the tone was lost in the
vaulted arches. I wondered too whether placing the soloists in the centre
rather than to the side might have improved the balance.

But these are small quibbles. Richard Graves, writing in the Musical
in 1955, said of Greene, ‘So many of his works lie almost totally
forgotten. When we at last turn to them, we shall find them full of unexpected
beauty and charm, and as fresh as on the day they were written’. Such
freshness and charm were pleasingly evident in Bampton Classical Opera’s
performance of Jephtha; one wonders what further delights might be unearthed
from among Greene’s neglected oeuvre.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Jephtha, John-Colyn Gyeantey; Daughter, Rosalind Coad; First Elder of
Gilead, Nicholas Merryweather; Second Elder of Gilead, Ben Williamson;
Conductor, Gilly French; Cantandum; Bampton Classical Players (on period
instruments). SJE Arts at St John the Evangelist, Oxford.
Sunday 2nd November 2014.

image_description=Maurice Greene (Attributed to Joseph Highmore)
product_title=Maurice Greene: Jephtha, Bampton Classical Opera
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Maurice Greene (Attributed to Joseph Highmore)