Published On: Mon, Nov 13th, 2023

Nice twist of the Handel at the Royal Opera – Jephtha review | Theatre | Entertainment

This is rarely seen, partly because it was not originally written as an opera but an oratorio. Turning it into a fully staged opera involves adding action to the singing, which includes creating parts for the chorus to play rather than just singing their hearts out at the back.

The current production, directed by Oliver Mears, is an intelligent compromise, adding just enough movement and acting to enhance Handel’s glorious music and, best of all, adding a superb plot twist at the end.

The story of Jephtha comes from Chapter 11 of the Old Testament Book of Judges.

Jephtha is an exile, through no fault of his own but thrown out of his home town because he was the son of a harlot. He is, however, a devout man and a great warrior and is called back to lead the Israelites in their war against the Ammonites which is going very badly for them.

Jephtha prays for God’s assistance in the battle and vows to sacrifice to God the first living creature to cross his path when he returns home after victory. Unfortunately, this turns out to be his daughter, which leads to great anguish for Jephtha himself as well as his wife Storge and, unsurprisingly, his daughter herself.

Basically they all agree that a vow to God cannot be broken, but while the Biblical story ends with the girl’s sacrificial death, Handel’s librettist, Thomas Morell, introduced an angel coming down from heaven (beautifully sung here by boy soprano Ivo Clark) to commute the sentence to lifelong service to God including a preservation of the poor girl’s virginity.

Presumably reasoning that if Handel and Morell could modify the Biblical story, Oliver Mears decided that he could change it again to reflect modern tastes.

Normally, I disapprove of directors changing a plot in the name of modernisation and supposed relevance, but this changed ending, without altering a word of the script or any of the music, is a brilliant addition that changes everything without disturbing the music.

To give details would be unfair to anyone planning to see it, so suffice to say that the surprise finish was greeted with huge laughter and applause from the entire audience.

The new, thoroughly happy ending was far from being the only fine part of this production.

As befits its oratorio origins, the staging is simple, dominated by massive stone columns with Biblical words etched on them telling part of the story from Judges.

The title role is superbly played by versatile English tenor Allan Clayton, who had recently impressed as Peter Grimes in Benjamin Britten’s opera as well as successfully taking on several Wagnerian roles.

Quite apart from a beautifully strong voice and excellent enunciation, Clayton’s acting abilities are powerfully displayed in the second half of Jephtha when he shows the anguish he feels at the terrible consequences of his vow.

Clayton is excellently supported by Alice Coote as Jephtha’s wife Storge and Jennifer France as his daughter Iphis.

Their emotions when they learn of Jephtha’s vow are very well portrayed, and the fine acting is considerably enhanced by the finesse of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, conducted by ancient music specialist Laurence Cummings.

Altogether a very fine production of a difficult opera, but it is Oliver Mears’ deliciously cheeky twist at the end that will live long in the memory.

  • Box Office: or 020 7304 4000 (various dates until 24 November)

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