A very human drama: Allan Clayton as Handel’s Jephtha at the BBC Proms

Handel: Jephtha - Jeanine De Bique, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Richard Egarr - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Handel: Jephtha – Jeanine De Bique, Scottish Chamber Orchestra,
Richard Egarr – BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

Handel Jephtha; Allan Clayton, Jeanine De Bique, Hilary Summers, Tim Mead, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Richard Egarr; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 August 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Some powerful individual performances in Handel’s final oratorio

Amazingly, Handel’s oratorio Jephtha has only been at the BBC Proms once before, in 2007 when Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. On Friday 30 August 2019, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra returned to the BBC Proms with Handel’s Jephtha, with Richard Egarr directing from the harpsichord with Allan Clayton as Jephtha, Jeanine De Bique as Iphis, Hilary Summers as Storge, Tim Mead as Hamor, Cody Quattlebaum as Zebul and Rowan Pierce as the Angel, with the SCO Chorus.

For all the 19th century tradition of large-scale performances of Handel, the Royal Albert Hall is not the ideal space for performing Handel oratorios. Richard Egarr’s forces went some way to reflecting the sense of scale, the chorus numbered around 100, the orchestra included four oboes and two bassoons, with two harpsichords (one played by Egarr) and a theorbo. The only curiosity was the lack of an organ to reinforce the harmony under the chorus.

Handel: Jephtha - Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Richard Egarr - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Handel: Jephtha – Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Richard Egarr
BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

Egarr’s speeds were generally on the fleet side, the idea seemed to be to keep what can be a long oratorio flowing (it was also discreetly cut). Though I thought some moments, such as the quartet, would have benefited from some more space.

The role of Jephtha was written for the great John Beard, who also created the heroic title role in Handel’s Samson, yet included the more lyric of Handel’s tenor roles in his repertoire. Jephtha thus calls for a tenor who can combine heroic drama with a degree of flexibility, whilst doing justice to the intensity of the drama. Allan Clayton has already explored the John Beard repertoire with Ian Page and Classical Opera [see my review of the CD], so it was lovely to hear him in one of Beard’s major roles.

As Jephtha, Clayton combined a nice heroic ping in his voice with an admirable facility in the fast passage-work, and he brought a remarkable range of colour to the vocal line. His Jephtha was very much an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. ‘Deeper and deeper still’ was expressive and remarkably lyrical, dying away magically to nothing at the end. ‘Waft her angels’ was wonderfully human, and here as throughout his performance, Clayton’s combination of a range of vocal colours and superb diction was highly memorable.  This is a performance I would love to encounter again, in a more sympathetic venue.

Handel: Jephtha - Rowan Pierce, Scottish Chamber Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Handel: Jephtha – Rowan Pierce, Scottish Chamber Orchestra
BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique made a spectacular Iphis, a role that can sometimes seem a touch passive. De Bique has a lovely bright soprano with some pin-sharp coloratura and an ability to make the vocal lines expressively shaped. She brought hints of sexy languor to Iphis’ earlier arias, and definitely gave the impression she knew her mind. After the crucial events of Act 2, her Iphis took on a new dignity and her final aria, whilst beautiful, was also serious and profoundly dignified.

Hilary Summers made a very human, worm-toned Storge, though there were moments when I would have liked a greater degree of power. ‘Scenes of Horror’ was human and quite contained, whilst ‘First perish, thou’ seemed to rely on Summers’ superb attention to the words.

Time Mead managed the difficult task of making Hamor interesting. Hamor’s role is simply to exist, for Iphis to have a lover to forsake at the end. Mead brought out his love for Iphis, their duet was wonderfully engaging, and he even managed to make the wordy battle description at the start of Act 2 into something vivid.

Cody Quattlebaum sang Zebul with a nice bite to his tone and an  enviable facility in the passage-work.

Rowan Pierce was delightfully direct, almost trenchant, as the Angel, making her aria admirably strong.

The chorus was on strong form and, whilst this is not such a choral oratorio as some, there were plenty of opportunities to admire the SCO Chorus’ strong, flexible sound. The great chorus which concludes Act 2,  ‘How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees’ was striking indeed, opening in hushed manner, with the conclusion full of strong dramatic contrast.

From the outset Richard Egarr drew stylish playing from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. This definitely a modern instrument performance, but a stylish one with superb rhythms, a great sense of attack and lovely lyricism.

Handel: Jephtha - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Handel: Jephtha – Tim Mead, Rowan Pierce, Jeanine De Bique, Richard Egarr, Allan Clayton, Hilary Summers,
Cody Quattlebaum, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, SCO Choir – BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

This was a performance full of good things, which managed to transcend the limitations of the venue and bring out the strong drama in this most powerful of works. Jephtha is an intense, and difficult, piece (the reviews of the 2007 BBC Proms performance were none to complimentary), but rewarding in the extreme when it works. The virtue of this performance was its lack of dogmatism, the combination of period inflected style with experience modern performance technique, and soloists who brought out the humanity of the drama.

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