The best-known of George Frideric Handel’s compositions—his Messiah oratorio and his Water Music suites, for example—are recognized by millions beyond the niche of classical music aficionados. But Handel wrote hundreds of compositions, and some are obscure even to many people who are passionate about the art form.
One of these is Jephtha, a long opera that Handel composed in 1752 toward the end of his life. I had never heard of this piece before Music of the Baroque announced that a performance of Jephtha would open the 2022-23 season. It is, however, a favorite of Dame Jane Glover, the ensemble’s lead conductor and music director for 20 years.
Having attended the concert performance of Jephtha at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts Sunday night, all I can say is thank you, Jane.
The story line, based on an Old Testament story of an Israelite warrior who makes a rash promise to God for success in battle, is compelling. There were impeccable vocal performances by three male and three female soloists, and by the 25-member Music of the Baroque Chorus under the leadership of new choral director Andrew Megill. And the orchestra, which typically handles Handel with aplomb, was in top form.
The story line, in brief: Jephtha (performed by tenor David Portillo) is summoned from exile at the urging of his half-brother Zebul (bass-baritone Neal Davies) to liberate the Israelites from rule by the neighboring Ammonites. Jephtha agrees after extracting a promise that he will rule the Israelites if he succeeds, then promises God that he will sacrifice the first person he sees should he win at battle. The plot thickens when Jephtha returns home victorious, and the first person he sees is his beloved daughter Iphis (soprano Lauren Snouffer).
Even within the concert format, the soloists were able to project the emotions of the characters. Portillo’s facial expressions projected Jephtha’s misery as his battlefield victory threatens to turn into a nightmare. Mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski, in the role of Jephtha’s wife Storgè, vocalized her rage at her husband for putting her only child’s life on the line. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen played Hamor, who had won Iphis’ heart by supporting Jephtha in battle and offered to give up his life to save hers. Yet Snouffer strongly displayed Iphis’ resignation to her fate as her father refused to break his vow.
All of the performers effectively navigated Handel’s arrangement; like most of his vocal work, it included much repeated phrasing as well as coloratura, especially in sections ably performed by Portillo. The chorus, performing from the back of the stage behind the orchestra, was heard at least as clearly as in any Music of the Baroque concert I’ve witnessed. The singers may have benefited from the fact that the North Shore Center is roughly half the size of the ensemble’s other home, Chicago’s Harris Theater, which at times has provided uneven acoustics for vocals.
Special note needs to be made of Cohen’s performance. The countertenor voice is a special and rarely used instrument, with a range that crosses over with the mezzo-soprano female voice. The effect when Cohen first launched into song was stunning, and it was not surprising to learn that he has already earned considerable acclaim at the tender age of 28.
A final interesting aspect of Jephtha is its ending. In Handel’s version, Iphis is spared when an angel—performed by soprano Katelyn Lee is an unusually impactful vocal cameo—interrupts the sacrifice in exchange for Iphis remaining a virgin and spending the rest of her life serving God. Yet in the Bible story, from the Book of Judges, Jephtha actually carries out the sacrifice, and suffers mightily in years after for making a vow that ran contrary to the will of God.
Apparently Handel, like most of us, preferred a happy ending.
If you missed the performance, the on-demand video will be available beginning on Friday (September 23) for $15 per household. Click here to register. Music of the Baroque returns with a Baroque Heroes program. Tickets for the Sunday, October 9, matinee at the North Shore Center for Performing Arts are priced at $35 to $100 and can be purchased here. Tickets for the performance on the evening of Tuesday, October 11, at the Harris Theater are priced at $25 to $100 and can be purchased here.