There’s no patriarchy like Old Testament patriarchy. Take Jephthah, for instance: In the Book of Judges, he promises God that in exchange for help fighting the idol-worshiping Ammonites, he’ll make a burnt offering of the first thing he sees upon his victorious return. This backfires catastrophically when his first sight on arrival is his daughter. In the Bible, he keeps his vow, and kills her.
But wait: In Handel’s oratorio adaptation, “Jephtha,” which Boston Baroque tackled for the first time on Friday evening, Thomas Morell’s libretto alters the ending. An angel intervenes to stop the sacrifice, with the stipulation that the girl (Iphis) forsake her beloved (Hamor) and live out her days in prayer and chastity. (Happy International Women’s Day!)
Though not without significant stumbles, Friday’s performance of “Jephtha,” under the baton of music director Martin Pearlman excelled once it found its feet. The Boston Baroque Orchestra displayed proficience if not fluency, while the chorus sounded disengaged in everything but chorales, which were reliably solid. The chorus describing the battle against the Ammonites at the beginning of act two was downright tame; on the word “whirlwinds,” Handel text-paints in Technicolor, but for all I knew the singers were wishing me calm seas. The dainty strings, fluttering instead of lashing, didn’t add any impact. Following that, everyone mostly got with the program; the funereal procession of “How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees” bent under immeasurable burden.
That was a fitting conclusion to act two’s final sequence, which began with a wrenching accompanied recitative by tenor Nicholas Phan, as the title character. Blessed with a petal-pliant voice, Phan initially seemed miscast in the role of a fatherly zealot, and his first air had distinct tough spots, but he hit his stride. His anguished vocal affect and open face conveyed the character’s deep pain; act two’s air “Open thy marble jaws” gradually shed stoicism until the high, raw edge of Phan’s voice shone through, and he seemed inches from weeping.
Countertenor Randall Scotting never quite settled into the role of Hamor, stumbling on arpeggios and rough phrase cutoffs. (The libretto, full of consonant-cluster cobblestones, does singers no favors.) In contrast, bass-baritone Dashon Burton was in his thunderous element as Zebul, delivering the kind of top-shelf performance that has sealed his reputation as one of today’s most compelling performers of sacred music.
Mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero also needed no onstage warmup to inhabit Jephtha’s wife, Storgé, imparting luminous significance to individual words through subtle vocal swells. The rage air she flung at Jephtha was also a sight and sound to behold, her chest voice ripping through the orchestra. Local standout soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad made the most of act three’s thin score when she appeared to deliver the Angel’s message of mercy.
The whole show was worth seeing just for soprano Ava Pine, who illuminated the lamb-like Iphis’s airs with gorgeous lyricism and silvered ornaments. In 2017, Pine announced she was scaling back her engagements as a professional singer as she moved into a career in medicine, and her biography in Friday’s program stated that she now balances music with work as a bone marrow transplant nurse. The opportunity to hear her should not be passed up.
At Jordan Hall, March 8. Repeats March 10 at 3 p.m. 617-987-8600, www.bostonbaroque.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.