Fans of Handel’s music tend to be well-served in Boston over the course of a typical season, but this spring brings an unprecedented opportunity to experience live performances, within the span of a few weeks, of the two works that bookended his entire career. Handel began brashly and brilliantly at age 19 with his opera “Almira,” which arrives next month courtesy of the Boston Early Music Festival. And almost four decades later, his spirits flagging with the onset of blindness, he completed his moving final oratorio, “Jephtha,” which was presented Friday night at Symphony Hall by the Handel and Haydn Society.
It is a wise and deep work with a biblically inspired libretto by Thomas Morell adapted from the Book of Judges and other sources. Jephtha, the warrior who commands the Israelites in battle, pledges if victorious to sacrifice the first person who greets him. After victory, however, it is Jephtha’s own daughter Iphis that he encounters. He is stricken with grief, assigning himself to “the rack of wild despair.” An angel ultimately appears and grants Iphis a reprieve.
Looming behind this score is the poignant image of the aged Handel, his artistic powers undimmed yet his own health slowly failing. His frailty can be noted even in the musical handwriting in the original manuscript, and when Handel reached the middle of the final chorus of Act II (“How dark,
O Lord, are Thy decrees”) he was forced to stop altogether, leaving a simple heartbreaking note in the margins: “unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.” He did not complete the score until several months later.
The final third of Act II, up through this concluding chorus, contains some of the most transfixing music you will encounter in his oratorios, and Friday night, the assembled H&H forces did it justice.
This was overall an exacting and articulate performance, that here deepened into something more. The singing of the H&H chorus, energetically conducted by Harry Christophers, was at its most vivid and refined, yet also responsive to the emotion and remarkable inward-drawing qualities of this score.
Among the vocal soloists, the clear standout on Friday was the young soprano Joélle Harvey, who gave an impeccably controlled performance as Iphis, blending style, technique, and an ear-catching luminosity of tone. As Jephtha, tenor Robert Murray’s performance grew stronger as the night progressed, and included a particularly affecting account of the accompanied recitative “Deeper, and deeper still,” in which Jephtha gives voice to his soul’s torment.
was eloquent as Jephtha’s wife Storgè, and countertenor
William Purefoy was solid as Hamor, Iphis’s lover. Two members of the H&H chorus — Woodrow Bynum (as Jephtha’s brother Zebul) and Teresa Wakim (the angel) — both made strong contributions.
Christophers drew pointed and characterful playing from the orchestra, which, like the chorus, displayed a notably strengthened sense of ensemble unity, perhaps the fruit of its recent tour. Principal flute Christopher Krueger turned in several shapely solos, and the oboe playing of Gonzalo Ruiz and Marc Schachman was also distinguished. A satisfying end to the H&H season, this program repeats on Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, on Saturday morning (May 4), a “Jephtha” symposium will begin at
10 a.m. at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium.