Review: WNO - Jephtha @ Bristol Hippodrome
It seemed I missed the autumn season of Welsh National Opera for 2012. But with negations, I was able to obtain a few tickets for the operas. But since the performances at the WMC had passed, I was able to see them on the last leg of their tour in Bristol. It would be an enjoyable excursion, in which I would travel there for the operas over three days (I'll discuss the other two in further reviews).
I had never been to the Bristol Hippodrome and was keen on visiting. I have been to the Bristol Old Vic and Saint George's Concert Hall, both brilliant and surprising arts venues. It also seems that with my brother is moving to the city next year, so I will become much more acquainted going over the channel.
As I walked through the streets of Bristol, I realised just how sprawling it really is. "This place is so much bigger than Cardiff!" I uttered to myself many times. It seemed to be much colder than Cardiff as well. I'm sure they are higher up than us, when the sea level is concerned. I crawled up the mountain that is Park Street and was delighted in seeing the Banksy graffiti when plummeting down the street. Bristol seems to be all about Banksy and Brunel (and apparently much to do with slavery as well). The street art seen all over is quite appealing in its own quirky way.
With my left ear completely blocked for the evening, I arrived at the Hippodrome and it was like a step back in time. Like our New Theatre, it has been open for over 100 years now, but the two theatres could not be more different. Theirs is much larger and grander. The staff seem to be stuck in a time warp. Selling pick and mix with those new glasses of wine with the peal off lid (most likely those ones from Dragon’s Den and being over-priced as usual). The look of these drinks is quite absurd. You would get half of the drink over you just by taking the top off. I was amazed they were going around the auditorium trying to flog these as well.
They wouldn't let people inside until what seems like half-an-hour before the performance, as people froze themselves outside in the cold. The bar next-door in the theatre seemed to be open with a guard outside. How tiny the toilets were inside the venue as well. All this as they pipe out music from their coming musicals on speakers outside...
I guess I should start talking about the opera now. If you could call it that. Originally an oratorio by Handel, and his last one at that, it tells of the Biblical story (taken from The Book Of Judges) of Jephtha, who vows to God that if he is victorious in battle, he will sacrifice the first living thing he sees on his arrival home. It happens to be his daughter, Iphis.
This is where the true drama of the work begins. We see Welsh singer Fflur Wyn, as Iphis, quivering and traumatised at her father's actions. She has preformed this role since this production premiered back in 2003 at our New Theatre and is the only cast member to have stayed. Although we don't see Robert Murray's reaction to the realisation he has to kill his daughter (his back is to the audience), we can feel his pain just by looking at him. But he does see several other people before seeing his child back on his arrival. This loses a certain immediacy to the staging, as it loosens its grip on one of the main factors of the story. The music is only occasionally interrupted with applause from the cast and some of the cast shouting "No!" in disbelief at what is going to occur.
This is the second time I have seen the production, the first time was back in 2006 at the WMC. The setting is taken out of the Biblical era and set within a wartorn and derelict hotel in Israel, around the middle of the last century. We don't need to use our imaginations as we see the cast smartly dressed in suits brandishing rifles and other weapons, in their fight against the Ephraimites and Ammonites. How could I not think about the current state of things in Israel and Palestine now? It is in the space of time between seeing the production and writing this review that Palestine was finally declared a state once more, much to my relief. But will it make a difference in the long run?
The story is changed for the sake of Handel’s generation. In The Bible, he does in fact sacrifice his daughter, whilst here, like with the story of Abraham and Isaac, an angel arrives and declares that the father has shown his worth to God and does not need to put an end to his child’s life. As long as she devotes her life to God from this day on, of course. But the angel does not threaten. Played by Claire Ormshaw, she omnipotently witnesses all the main events that occur as she moves around the stage unseen.
Yet, her arrival at the end to declare to Jephtha he doesn't need to go though with it, doesn't seem to work. She merely runs onto the stage, as Iphis is bounded and ready for death with her father yelling, "Go! Go, go!" to the men to prepare her. The set features a lovely spiral staircase. Why does she not go down that? As if coming down from heaven, perhaps? It would have made a much more elaborated entrance. Her wings here are large and graceful. But when seen before, they are a tiny little set which could easily been missed by the audience.
The only extract I recall from seeing it the first time is the aria Scenes Of Horror. Sung by StorgÃ©, Jephtha's mother and this time played by Diana Montague, it details her dream of the awful nature that her son's battle will ensue and perhaps the eventful fiasco with their daughter. Hats off also to Robin Blaze as Hamor, who is betrothed to Iphis and as expected is completely devastated. In his manic desperation, he even at one point grabs another woman from the chorus and says to sacrifice her instead.
Amazingly he is an alto, or countertenor, the highest male singing class. This can be strange when he is singing as high as his lover. I did remember from last time the lovers sang a duet, in which they both held a note, kissed and then carried on the note, in a brief moment of humour in the piece. It is through the clarity and precision of Handel's music, which can admittedly jar with the gritty and powerful nature of the story and production.
How on earth could I have forgotten Jephtha’s aria ‘Waft her, angles to the sky?’ It is one of the most beautiful Handel ever wrote. It was in the back of my head, like with the overture. He sings this to comfort her, as he prepares to kill her. He very delicately blindfolds her and ties up her hands and feet. Her reaction to the blindfold is of shock and terror, yet she is willing to go through with it, such is the power of her father’s vow. In this achingly powerful scene many tears were shed. Can a parent even grasp the notion of having to kill their own child? He then rather abruptly yells ‘Go! Go! Go!’ as a few men quickly carry her off. This is when the angel arrivesâ€¦
If this has a revival again, it is a must see, just for the acting and music alone.