Opera Scotland

Jephtha

Music

George Frideric Handel (born Halle, 23 February 1685; died London, 14 April 1759)

Text

Thomas Morell

Source

Biblical - Book of Judges, Chapter XI.

 

Premieres

First Performance: London (Covent Garden), 26 February 1752.

First Performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Music Hall), 22 January 1868.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.

 

Background

Jephtha, like most of Handel's large scale English language compositions, is an oratorio, rather than an opera. They were initially performed in concert form, and frequently utilise large-scale choral forces, not at the time seen as a proper element in operatic performances. It has long been accepted that these great music dramas can be successfully staged, and for a couple of decades in London the Handel Opera Society regularly produced an English work such as Semele, SaulSamson or Belshazzar in tandem with the little known Italian operas. Funding for these performances was cut thirty years or so ago, on the logical ground that the battle to establish Handel as an operatic genius had been won, and he is today accepted as an important element of the operatic mainstream.

Of his English pieces, the early masque Acis and Galatea, the Milton-derived Samson, and the ribald Congreve restoration comedy Semele have all long been accepted as the equal in dramatic impact of original operas. In more recent years his later works such as Theodora and Jephtha have also entered the general operatic repertoire with great success, and it seems likely that they will remain, recognised at last as supremely moving music dramas. Jephtha was the last of his dramatic oratorios, composed painstakingly while beset by his worsening health problems and approaching blindness. Some of the music, not only the justly famous tenor solo 'Waft her, angels, through the skies', but also the chorus 'How dark, o Lord, are Thy decrees' and Storgè's forebodings, have a profundity the composer rarely equalled. As with his earlier Theodora, Morell's text for Jephtha is not ideal, with inappropriate elements of piety and even sentimentality on occasion. After its completion, Handel's output was restricted mainly to the revision or rearrangement of existing works, without producing much new music.

 

Characters

Jephtha, Israelite leader (tenor)

Iphis, his daughter (soprano)

Storgè, his wife (contralto)

Hamor, a warrior betrothed to Iphis (counter-tenor)

Zebul, Jephtha's half-brother (baritone)

Angel (soprano)

 

Plot Summary

Jephtha the Gileadite has, some years before, been banished by the Israelites. He is recognised as a great warrior, so when the Ammonites invade, he is recalled, at the urging of Zebul. To ensure victory, Jephtha promises that, on his victorious return, he will sacrifice to God the first person who should come out of his house to welcome him. After the victory, when he does return, the person who comes first out of his house, leading the joyful celebration, is his only child, his daughter Iphis. In the biblical version, the sacrifice goes ahead. In Morell's version, at a time when tragic endings (even to great Shakespearian masterpieces) were unfashionable, an angel intervenes, imposing the fate of perpetual virginity - an outcome accepted with pious rejoicing by Iphis and her intended, Hamor, indeed by everyone except Jephtha himself.

The Cast

Angel
 
Hamor
 a warrior betrothed to Iphis
Iphis
 daughter of Jephtha
Jephtha
 Israelite leader
Storgè
 wife of Jephtha
Zebul
 Jephtha's half-brother

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