English National Opera
18th May 2005
Katie Mitchell's production of Handel's late masterpiece was one of the key events for WNO in 2003; a deeply felt and impeccably realised staging, coupled with magnificent singing. Just how important the musical side of that realisation was is highlighted by its transfer to the London Coliseum. Many of the cast are the same and there is little to fault there. The addition of Robin Blaze is, if anything, an added strength and his scenes with Sarah Tynan's sensitive, almost delicate, Iphis are truly touching. Mark Padmore is as emotionally effective as ever, torn by a need to carry out a pledge he should never have made in the first place. I had not noticed two years ago that the Angel whispers the oath into his ear. Is it, then, all the fault of a malign deity who just wants the good to suffer? It certainly looks that way, and the ending is a bleak as ever.
With all of these strengths it should have been a very moving evening. That is wasn't unfortunately reflected the one real weakness in the theatre. Nicholas Kraemer's conducting was simply not precise enough. Rhythms were often lax and entries just that bit blurred. Where tension was needed we had a chugging inevitability. This was not the fault of the orchestra who played with great sensitivity throughout but the continual lack of bite between stage and pit had a dulling effect on the whole process.
It is possible that Nicholas Kraemer's use of the up-beat for many entries led to this lack of clarity. Certainly the chorus drifted on many occasions, seemingly pulling themselves back into place rather than relying on the pit to bring them in. Similarly soloists were often just ahead of the beat - or rather the orchestra were just behind them. What should have sparkled often only shone.
Jephtha returns to WNO next spring. It will be interesting to encounter it in a similar sized house at the Wales Millennium Centre but with different leadership. I don't think the size of the house is to blame and I expect Cardiff to prove me right!
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